by Michael I. Niman, ArtVoice 7/22/04
I went to the Bass Pro store in Auburn, New York. How could I resist? It’s the panacea that’s going to save Buffalo. It’s already transformed Auburn from a dank prison town to a dank prison town with a big tackle shop. God knows what such an array of fishing lures could do for Buffalo.
I must admit that I just don’t get it. Why would a city as dynamic as Buffalo go ga-ga over what in essence is just another Galyan’s? Why does our media and government talk about this sporting goods store as if it’s going to transform Buffalo from a wonderful city with lousy job opportunities into a rust belt boom town.
Yeah, the big fish tank was impressive. And it went a long way toward finally educating me about the difference between a Bass and a Walleye. But other than that, it’s really just a glorified Wal Mart. It’s big, but it’s got to be. It’s full of boats. We already have big rooms full of boats in Western New York. It’s got interesting décor in the form of more boats, hanging from the ceiling, and an odd paint scheme designed to make the whole place seem like it’s under water – which is an ominous sign since big boxes like this tend to be built on flood plains in upstate New York.
Despite the intriguing motif, I still have to stick with my Wal Mart analogy. Though fishing enthusiasts tell me Bass Pro has an interesting array of lures, the place is otherwise pretty much filled with low quality junk. From their cheesy plastic kayaks and canoes to their sweatshop sportswear and footwear, K-Mart style camping gear and rust prone marine supplies, the place offers nothing new – just higher prices than we are used to paying. And like Wal Mart, it’s a Mecca for Chinese sweatshop products.
Putting the hype aside, Bass Pro seems like a cookie cutter operation, despite a comical attempt to brand individual stores with a local veneer. In Auburn they confused the Finger Lakes with the Adirondacks, handing out floor maps welcoming shoppers to the “Adirondacks Bass Pro.” The store, however, is 150 miles away from the Adirondacks, located in the heart of the Finger Lakes region – an error not lost on local fishers.
The only immediate impact I could see in Auburn was the new “out of business” sign on that city’s venerable old “Bob Nolan’s Sporting Goods” shop. The local Bait and Tackle shops seem to be hanging in there, however, as the Bass Pro pros turned out for the most part to be just another exploited group of “associates,” unable to provide the same expertise as the local tackle shops which are run mostly by retired lifelong fishers. But enough with Auburn.
The real story here isn’t about Bass Pro. Like Circuit City, Best Buy, Dicks, Galyan’s and all the other big boxes, they’re in business to lure customers and ultimately sell products. To do this successfully, they have to manufacture hype – their ultimate product. And like the folks who brought us Krispy Kreme Donuts, they’re champs in this area. In the end, however, after the Eyewitless News camera left and the lines abated, Krispy Kreme turned out to be just another brand of donuts destined for the rather pedestrian pasture of convenience store shelves. Down the Thruway in Utica, people actually lined up for a chance to visit that area’s heavily hyped new Applebee’s, again only to find, well, an Applebee’s. Then there’s always the letdown – the realization that we’ve been had.
The real story here is about the pathetic state of government in Buffalo. Buffalo’s Mayor, Tony Masiello, isn’t just another sap destined to wait in line to taste donuts or burgers. He’s our mayor. It’s in this capacity that his naivety becomes toxic. When Bass Pro reeled him in hook, line and sinker, they not only scored a new customer, but tens of millions of our tax dollars as well, since, in a weird twist on socialism, Masiello wants Buffalo’s Bass Pro to be state subsidized.
Imagine if you owned Tent City – a venerable old Downtown institution that has been part of this community for the better part of a half century. Or imagine that you owned Campus Wheelworks, which like Tent City, also sells camping supplies. Both locally owned businesses have been paying taxes to the City of Buffalo since they opened, just like Bob Nolan dutifully paid his taxes to the City of Auburn. Tent City and Campus Wheelworks’ money will now be used to subsidize their out-of-town-owned competition. This just plain isn’t fair.
Likewise, it wasn’t fair when Buffalo spent over $500,000 to subsidize the Broadway K-Mart, going as far as to knock down a half block of homes for that store. The immediate result was the closure of Modern Home and Auto, a taxpaying East Side institution since the post World War II era. Now the East Side has neither Modern Home and Auto, nor a K-Mart, which fell victim to that company’s bankruptcy.
The real problem here is a collective lack of self-esteem – the belief that we are not worthy, even of a K-Mart, and that we have to lure big boxes to our community, as if they were assets that make us whole or make us part of America.
And no, arguments about corporate welfare aside, Bass Pro will not transform Downtown Buffalo into a tourist destination or even another Cheektowaga, no matter how large their fish tank is. Like Galyan’s Climbing Wall, the novelty will wear off and people will bore of it. This search for a panacea, this bizarre belief that K-Mart or Bass Pro will transform a community, is the hallmark of Masiello’s tenure in City Hall.
We have a mayor who has always been looking for someone else to solve this city’s problems. His casino plan for downtown redevelopment calls for carving a large chunk out of the heart of the city and actually deeding it to a foreign country, the sovereign Seneca nation. I must admit that I find the Seneca’s piecemeal recapture of their stolen land base and the concurrent shrinkage of the United States to be a quite fascinating phenomenon. Still, I can’t see how permanently removing a large chunk of downtown Buffalo from the United States and relinquishing future control over how it is developed, is necessarily in this municipality’s best long-term interest, no matter what your position is on casino gambling.
This is all we can expect, however, from an unimaginative city administration ready to hand the house over to anyone, whether it’s the Casino interests, the Control Board, or in this case, Bass Pro.
My point here isn’t to say that I’m against seeing a Bass Pro shop downtown. To the contrary, I agree that it would be a good addition to Buffalo’s waterfront. I just see providing public money to build, what by any definition, is a store, and not a park, to be wrong. Buffalo and New York State are both not in any position to hand out corporate welfare. And I’d also hate to see people’s hopes raised, expecting a gilded emerald city, only to receive a glorified tackle shop. Our tax dollars should be spent more intelligently.
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