Tuesday, January 23, 2007

Fishing For Bass Pro Shops Lures Buffalo and Memphis

If Buffalo’s experience with Bass Pro Shops is any indication, Memphis may in time give up on the company’s grandiose plans for downtown Memphis and tear down The Pyramid.

For five years in Buffalo, the retailer dangled the lure of a 250,000 square foot superstore as the tenant for the old sports venue, the Memorial Auditorium, and time after time, as city and state leaders – including the mayor and the governor – tried to pull a deal together, Bass Pro Shops asked for more public incentives and more and more time.

Finally, after all the years of talk and ponderously slow negotiations, Bass Pro Shop has announced that it’s not longer interested in the use of the massive, empty building in downtown Buffalo. The proposal for a 250,000 square foot regional showplace was scaled back last week to a 100,000-125,000 square foot store, and the retailer now wants a waterfront site, where it would become the signature of the Central Wharf redevelopment project.

Toothless Ultimatums

Everything started to change on December 18 when city officials finally delivered a 30-day ultimatum to Bass Pro Shops to fish or cut bait. In the end, the company said it was concerned about the size and the cost of the Auditorium site. According to The Buffalo News, the original proposal called for $35 million in public money and $20 million from the company. Here, The Commercial Appeal reports that the 150,000 square foot store in The Pyramid will cost more than $100 million.

Despite the shift in plans, Buffalo Mayor Byron Brown is still asking for $21 million from the state – to now tear down the Auditorium where Bass Pro Shop was supposed to locate.

While economic development types with the Erie Canal Harbor Development Corp. are trying to put a pretty face on the change in direction, it is nonetheless an embarrassing black eye for the city. In chasing the fishing store as the panacea for its downtown turnaround, Buffalo has become the poster child for extravagant public incentives spent chasing a questionable project billed as the magic answer to its ills.

Salvaging Pride

While some still are still working hard to salvage a proposal in Buffalo, the thrill is gone. The Buffalo store – once touted in an exercise in civic hyperbole as a regional tourist destination – is now smaller than Bass Pro Shops' 140,000 square foot store in Toronto 98 miles away.

Proponents for the project nonetheless still toss out projections of more than two million visitors for the store, but are less clear about whether this actually creates significant net economic growth and whether the acres of asphalt that accompanies the Bass Pro Shops actually contributes to a more appealing downtown to all the visitors who aren’t buying fishing gear, not to mention the impact of the retailer as the symbol for downtown Buffalo.

Of course, all of this should be a cautionary tale for Memphis, where history is being replayed in startlingly similar detail. Blinded by the notion of millions of customers flocking to The Pyramid, we seem unwilling to ask the hard questions ignored in Buffalo - whether this is the smartest use of a building that will immediately come to symbolize Memphis’ ambition and self-image.

Five Years And Counting

We’re on record in favor of blowing up The Pyramid, and perhaps, based on Buffalo’s experience, that will be what we do five years from now when talks finally grind to a halt. Until then, we need to pay close attention to what’s going on in Buffalo.

There, Bass Pro Shops is now asking for a waterfront site that would block access to the river and mar the historic district’s image. Already, the Buffalo news media are asking tougher questions about the entire deal and why the city should continue with the large public subsidy and allow the store to pick its site.

Most of all, the Buffalo public has lost its patience with the store and its interest is fast following. With the clock on the 30-day ultimatum ticking, Buffalo citizens were told: “the talks are going very well now,” “we don’t want to interfere with the momentum we’ve got going,” “everyone is being as creative and flexible as possible,” and everyone is “putting in a good faith effort.”

Buying Fever

And yet, the whole nature of the deal changed, and city officials, determined to close a deal, seem reluctant to step back and ask if it’s really the deal they want or need.

It’s not the nature of government to admit that a mistake has been made. It’s also the nature of cities like Buffalo and Memphis – cursed with low self-esteem and self-confidence – to treat Bass Pro Shops like it is doing us a favor even considering us for a mega-store.

With the proliferation of these stores and speculation about a softening market, perhaps it’s time for cities being approached for incentives to drive these negotiations rather than waiting on the company whose tendency is to drag out negotiations, demand multi-million dollar public concessions and feel no compunction about its failure to follow through.


So, after the mayor’s deadline and the flurry of activity to meet it, what happened in Buffalo? Absolutely nothing.

The city blinked, but the lead negotiator happily declared that a deal is closer than ever. “The deadline is a non-issue,” he said. “We’re continuing to do serious work on this. We’re not going to stop because of the calendar.”

Actually, they’re not going to stop because as long as deadlines aren’t really deadlines and companies know it and as long as cities talk tough for public consumption and give in in private, the Bass Pro Shops in Buffalo – and possibly here – will materialize only when and if the company wants it.


Anonymous said...


Toronto is only 75 miles from downtown Buffalo ,,, NOT 245 miles.

Anonymous said...

While I don't have a magic solution for the Pyramid, I am not in favor of demolishing it. It has become the symbol of our city as intended (maybe without all the original attractions inside), and it has been highly promoted in postcards, logos, and just about anything else that markets the Memphis image to the world.

Any private use of the Pyramid -- particularly as a retail store -- ties us to the financial ups and downs of that company, its public image, and its current "hotness" in the marketplace. And, frankly, "mega" outdoor stores aren't all that unusual these days, nor is Bass Pro the leader with the "best" of the genre. A "bad run" with one company can very well ruin the prospects of getting another (reasonably not wanting to be associated with the previous failed tenant).

I shop at Bass Pro, but I don't want it the new "symbol of our city." What if New York had been faced with the same decision for Ellis Island? There are a lot of vacant buildings on Ellis -- why not put in a WalMart there?

The Pyramid needs to remain "public," perhaps as additional convention center exhibition space (Memphis is still firmly in the "small-to-medium" size when it comes to attracting major shows).

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