Small business owners bash Hillsborough Commission for approving Bass Pro development subsidy

02/20/13 Janelle Irwin
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Hillsborough County Commissioners approved a $6 million road project that will rein in a Bass Pro Shop in Brandon. During their meeting Wednesday, 12 supporters of small business spoke in opposition to the subsidy. Bill Place, owner of Ace Golf stores in the Tampa Bay area, was disappointed in the commission’s decision, but not surprised.

“Bass Pro has competitors too and those competitors ought to be here if they decide not to be. The telling this is, they said Florida is their top market and two of their top performing stores are in Florida. So, Tampa Bay didn’t need to sell itself short.”

Another critic called Bass Pro a Wal-Mart in camo. The quip referenced opponents’ concerns that the sporting goods mega-store would put local stores out of business. The $6.25 million appropriation will reimburse developers for improvements to roads surrounding the site where Bass Pro will be built. Michael Bunham is the director of real estate for Bass Pro Shops.

“Like I said, we have to have access and the property offers great visibility and, with this road, great access. But without the road it makes it almost impossible to develop that property.”

“So, if the vote had gone differently would you have looked elsewhere?”

“I don’t know what would have happened for sure. We’ve looked at many locations around the Tampa Bay area … we’ve been working on this market for many years.”

A spokesperson for the developer told commissioners during the meeting that without the full $6.25 million from the county, the would not build on the property until retail rent rates go up. That would mean Bass Pro would likely go somewhere else. But two of the company’s most successful stores are located in Florida and the company touts the Tampa Bay area as a prime spot to do business. Commissioner Kevin Beckner was the only board member to vote against the subsidy. He asked why such a successful company couldn’t just pay for the road improvements themselves.

“I mean, if you were required to pay for those improvements like many other businesses have been required to pay for your own improvements. It would just blow me away that you would walk away from this opportunity for $6.25 million.”

Beckner got a booming round of applause from Bass Pro critics, but Commissioner Ken Hagan who has been flirting with the sporting goods store for years was quick to respond.

“If we were giving Bass incentives, up front monies or subsidies, Commissioner Beckner would be 100% correct, but we’re not doing that. We’re investing in infrastructure. He also asked, when is it going to stop and we’re creating a trend. Well, based on the Economic Prosperity Committee’s recommendations, based on all of our strategic planning efforts … based on our retreat, based on last week’s workshop, the trend is going to continue and then some.”

Opponents were let down by the commission’s 6-1 vote in favor of funding road improvements. The group had hoped commissioners Sandra Murman and Les Miller would side with them and they were all but certain Mark Sharpe was in their corner. According to him, he was – that is until a recent road trip with his family.

“I intentionally was looking for them. I was asking my kids, find them. We had our ipads, all of our electronic gear – where’s the Bass Pro? My son was like, ‘what is the deal with Bass Pro dad?’ I said, ‘I just want to see it.’ And when we drove past, what I did see – and I have to admit when I saw it, I was like, ugg – the parking lot was full – lots and lots of people.”

Miller sided with Bass Pro in part because developers agreed to employ minority workers during construction. A lot of people urged the county to spend taxpayer dollars on economic development projects that would draw high wage jobs. But Miller said a low wage job was better than no job at all to people without one. That sentiment was echoed by Hillsborough resident and retiree Ken Roberts who was one of eight people to speak in favor of the subsidy. He said small businesses trying to thwart the county’s plan to entice an anchor retail store were protecting the wrong little guy.

“The little guy is the 7.9% of us who don’t have jobs today. That’s the little guy. And the priorities for this board and this county should be jobs and revenue and this project offers relief in both those areas.”

Defeated opponents were also angry with the commission for knocking a minute off of the time each speaker was allowed to make comments. Elizabeth Belcher has been tracking what she calls secret meetings between commissioners and Bass Pro. She came armed with stacks of documents she claims might have made a difference.

“Because they cut it down to just two minutes I was not able to address all the issues and quite honestly, I could have probably rebutted everything or pretty much close to everything that Ken Hagan had said.”

With today’s vote, Bass Pro Shops is committed to opening a store in Brandon – though an exact time frame isn’t set. The money set aside by commissioners for road improvements won’t be paid out until construction is complete and meets county standards. The money is also hinged on Bass Pro opening. The retail development is expected to draw in several other businesses including a hotel and a high-end driving range as well as an influx in tourism.

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