Brandon-area sporting goods store owners worry proposed Bass Pro will put them out of business
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12/04/12 Janelle Irwin
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Hillsborough County Commissioners will decide Wednesday whether or not to fork over more than $8 million to entice a sporting goods mega store to Brandon. Some local sporting goods retailers plan to urge commissioners not to use taxpayer money to open a store they say could put many independent businesses out of business. Tom Mahoney, owner of T.A. Mahoney boat repair and tackle shop near Brandon compares the big box sporting goods giant to Wal-Mart.

“I personally am not against Bass Pro. I have been into a number of Bass Pros and shopped through them through the years, but they have no business taking tax dollars to come into an area because they just do not reap the benefits.”

A $15 million dollar incentive was on the table in but has been whittled down to $8.25 million dollars with the stipulation that none of it will go directly to Bass Pro Shops. Instead the money would reimburse developers for road improvements near the proposed site which also includes a hotel.

“These are roads that lead into the development. You wouldn’t need to expand them were it not for this large project and obviously a good question is, ‘why doesn’t the developer themselves or Bass Pro pay for the road improvements?’”

That was Hillsborough County Commissioner Mark Sharpe talking about the issue on WMNF’s Radioactivity this morning. The answer to his question: jobs. According to an analysis by Urban Development and Mobility Solutions for Hillsborough County, the entire project, including Bass Pro, a hotel and construction, will create more than 3,000 jobs. But Sharpe said those jobs might not be right for Hillsborough County.

“My sense still remains, and I obviously will be listening to the proponents tomorrow, but my sense is that with limited economic development dollars we really need to be focused on the types of jobs we’re trying to create right here in Hillsborough County. For me that has been since I was elected in 2004 the high wage jobs that come – the life sciences, the medical industry, smart manufacturing – that’s really the focus.”

Small business owners who will find themselves in competition Bass Pro also worry they will lose business when the sporting goods mega store opens. Mahoney, the owner of the sporting goods business near Brandon said it’s inevitable that businesses like his will eventually fail when a corporate store comes into the picture.

“Oh, I’m sure that when I go out of business I can go over to work at Bass Pro Shop. I’m going to get paid $9 an hour, I’m going to be a part-time employee, I’m going to get no benefits. So, if they’re looking for more Wal-Mart jobs, they’re going to have them. They’re going to have a lot more low income, low dollar per hour jobs with no benefits.”

Mahoney isn’t the only one who thinks the big box store could hurt local retailers. Bill Robinson owns Gandy Bait and Tackle in South Tampa. He said some stores will lose business to Bass Pro because customers assume they’ll save money, but that’s not always the case.

“There was a picture in the paper the other day of Bass Pro and you could see an end cap and some of the products on that end cap were the same products I sell here and I could just barely make out a sign with a price and we’re the same price.”

Despite the risk to some owners though, Robinson doesn’t think he’ll feel the effects once Bass Pro lays down roots in Brandon.

“People in South Tampa are funny. They don’t like to drive a lot of miles to do things.”

And Commissioner Kevin Beckner isn’t convinced Bass Pro would detract from any of the local sporting goods retailers.

“I believe, my understand of the Bass Pro model is that it serves a different kind of clientele and it’s a higher end clientele. An analogy to use is that if a Nordstrom or Sacs Fifth Avenue decided that they wanted to open another store in our community, would that impact the business of smaller clothing retailers or even larger ones like JC Penny or Sears or Macy’s?”

Another question Hillsborough County Commissioners will be faced with when deciding whether or not to dip into economic development funds is whether or not the investment will pay off. Commission chair Ken Hagan has claimed Bass Pro Shops are a destination spot that will attract tourism dollars from outside the community. Boat repair shop owner Tom Mahoney disagrees.

“People do not drive hundreds of miles to come to a Bass Pro Shop and then spend two or three days in the area visiting them and other things. No, they drive through as they go from here to there. It’s basically a glorified Wal-Mart.”

Mahoney is rallying other local business owners on the issue, asking them to go to the commission meeting tomorrow. Gandy Bait and Tackle’s Bill Robinson is one of them. He wants to know where his subsidy is.

“I bought the property, I built the building, I did everything else. It’d be nice if – you know, I wouldn’t want $8 million, I’ll take a million and a half to put a left turn lane out in front of my business to help me out.”

San Fu Lee, owner of Tampa Fishing Outfitters on West Osborne won’t be able to make the meeting, but plans to send someone in his place. He wants commissioners to know that if Bass Pro wants to open here he doesn’t mind, but they need to do it on their own dime.

“If they open by their money, that’s fine because it’s free market. But if you have to give people tax money or [incentive] from the people – I’m talking about taxpayer money – that’s not fair for general people.”

Hillsborough County Commissioners are scheduled to tackle the issue at 2:45 p.m. Wednesday. A spokesperson for Bass Pro Shops deferred comment to developer David Verardo with I-75/Park River. Verardo did not return phone calls by deadline. Commissioners Ken Hagan, Al Higginbotham and Les Miller were in meetings and unavailable for comment.

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