MANTECA — The grand entrance to Bass Pro Shops in Manteca hardly offers a clue to what is inside.
A huge facade of faux giant redwood logs and embedded stone gives you the sense that you're entering either a rustic-themed grand casino or the latest Disneyland log flume ride.
And that's exactly what the Springfield, Mo.-based management of the 53-store national chain wants.
Bass Pro Shops wants your heart to beat a little faster and your eyes to open a little wider in wonderment as you enter their 120,000-square-foot big-box destination outlet for the outdoors set.
"When the company builds these buildings, they want them to be a destination, to be a place people will drive hours to come see," said Manteca store manager Dan Dugger. "When you're inside, you feel like you're in the outdoors. You're comfortable, and it's a great place to take your kids. That's what we want."
The Manteca store opened in October 2008 and remains the lone Northern California location; the only other store is in Rancho Cucamonga. The company plans to open stores in Bakersfield and at the railyards in Sacramento, but is waiting on developers in both locations.
Yes, the Manteca store was a risk, opening in difficult economic times. Those times are reflected in the rest of the development where it's located, the Promenade Shops at Orchard Valley.
The anchors, including Bass Pro Shops, J.C. Penney, Kerasotes Showplace 16 movie theaters and Best Buy, are in place. But the huge, 72-acre development has only one restaurant -- a Red Robin -- and a drive through the interior portion of the center reveals retail pads not only vacant but never occupied or even improved.
"I keep asking the developer, and I don't know what they have planned," Dugger said. "I hope they fill it soon. I know they had plans for outlets, but the economy has changed everybody's timetables as far as packing this place."
Keeping up without the Joneses
Although additional retail within the Promenade Shops development would help all the current tenants, Bass Pro Shops has done quite well without neighbors.
Dugger said he couldn't talk about the number of customers the store entertains, but the Manteca Bulletin reported in April that 2.7 million people walked through the store's grand entry in 2009.
In other words, 200,000 more people visited the Manteca store in 2009 than paid for admission to see all three of Oakland's major sports teams -- the A's, Raiders and Warriors -- during their most recently concluded seasons.
"It's a pretty good number," Dugger said. "It's been great for us here. It's been good for the community and good for us.
"This is a great outdoors area, and a lot of people have been hungering for a store like this, where you can get everything you want in one spot and not have to go to five different places."
Avid outdoorsman Mike Dunlavy of Valley Springs felt the lure of the store last week. After a morning appointment in Lodi, he decided Bass Pro Shops was close enough for a quick swing through before driving back home.
"I hunt and shoot just about everything, from birds to moose," said Dunlavy, who came to check out game cameras but was looking at a camouflage backpack. "If I don't get something here, I'm getting it through the magazines.
"This store has everything. The prices are about the same everywhere, but if you come here you don't have to order it, pay for the shipping and handling and then wait for it."
Dunlavy is part of the chain's consumer core -- the hook-and-
bullet crowd willing to pay retail prices for name-brand gear.
But that gear, Dugger said, will be a little different in every Bass Pro Shop.
"Every region has its own baits and own types of equipment," he said. "We have Yosemite nearby here, and in Springfield there's no Yosemite or any big mountain. They have camping, but not to our degree.
"Bass baits are different here. Folks like to use the regional stuff. When they go fishing they don't want to use a buzzbait from Mississippi, they want something local to our delta."
That local focus extends to the company's hiring philosophy. Dugger is a Northern California native and outdoorsman who came to Bass Pro Shops from Sam's Club. He hires locals to work in the store because they know where to find the region's best fishing, hunting, camping and hiking.
"If you bring in somebody from out of state they might not have a clue as to what's going on," Dugger said.
Not all people who come through the grand entrance are looking to fish or cut bait. Part of being a destination means catering to families, including children.
"We come here about once a month," said Barbara New of Turlock, with son Derrick, 7, and daughter Nakota, 3, in tow.
"The kids love the fish tank and my husband loves the fishing stuff. I don't care about any of that, I just like to bring the kids here. They like it," New said. "It's really cool here. It's a big store with lots of people, but it's a great place to bring your kids."
Store reels 'em in from all over
First-time visitors, such as Tim Stevens of San Ramon, can find their senses comfortably overwhelmed.
"It's pretty cool, because they have all the animals and the fish tank -- things you don't see in San Ramon," said Stevens, a football and track coach at San Ramon Valley High School, who was visiting with his wife, Allie. "It's totally different than anything we have in San Ramon. I've never been here, so I just came to check out what they have."
If you're just coming to look, Dugger advises allowing about two hours to get comfortable with the lay of the store and its departments. And, he said, it's fine just to window shop. In fact, the store offers free seminars and clinics year-round -- all the better to keep the people streaming in from throughout the region.
"We get folks from either end of the state," Dugger said. "Monterey, Tahoe, all over. People from Los Angeles will stop in because we're so close to the two freeways. They plan to stop here, just like people from the Bay Area stop on the way to Yosemite.
"We put a lot of emphasis on our events. We try to get the community involved, and everything we do is free. Every year we're trying to get better and better. If we do that, people will come back."
Bee staff writer Brian VanderBeek can be reached at email@example.com or 578-2300.