Joe Henderson Columns
Henderson: Sharpe torn over Bass Pro issue
From his office at the Hillsborough County Commission's chambers, Mark Sharpe was rattling off reasons to oppose using taxpayer money as an incentive for Bass Pro Shops to open a store in Brandon. "Bass is old-school retail," he said. "If we were going to give incentives, I wish the money would go to high-tech jobs. Small businesses could be hurt by Bass. I don't want to support this. "But yet." He just might.He was the lone "no" vote last month when commissioners decided 6-1 to delay action on an $8.25 million package of road and infrastructure upgrades for the planned Bass site. Sharpe voted against the delay because he wanted the project dead on the spot. "My reason for not supporting it is because the county has limited resources and we should use that to remake our community," he said. "But I don't want to look down my nose at retail jobs. Not everyone that comes here is going to be a biotech company." Bass actually is just one part of this plan, and it's complicated. A developer wants to use Bass as an anchor and surround it with other businesses. Bass wouldn't get any taxpayer money directly, but without Bass the development might not happen. The $8 million-plus package could be reduced when commissioners tackle this again Feb. 6. They're still working on it, but at least this is headed in the right direction. It started off as $15 million in taxpayer bait. "If it's $8 million, I'm still a no vote," Sharpe said. "But if it's $3 million, well, we would spend that much on a traffic study." His epiphany began on a drive to Nebraska around Christmas, when Sharpe said he noticed three Bass Pro outlets he passed along the way "were all packed." Sharpe thinks big. He has been working to attract top-wage, high-tech businesses to the area around the University of South Florida. He thinks the best way to lift Tampa and Hillsborough is to move away from a service and retail economy and into industry that makes a difference long-term. And there is the not-insignificant issue that Bass isn't always a good neighbor. Small outdoor retailers are particularly opposed to having their tax dollars support a business that could help destroy them. Recently, we reported how Bass claimed trademark infringement by a small store in Valrico, arguing that the owner's logo is too similar to what Bass uses. Although the Valrico logo had three fish to one for Bass and was a different color, the small guy was forced into a costly legal fight. A public outcry forced Bass founder and owner Johnny Morris to apologize, but the episode stank to the heavens for a lot of people. Sharpe was included in the group that wondered just who we were trying to do business with. But yet. "I would love to have them here," he said. "But using public money, I don't know. I don't want to be so pure about this that it gets to the point that the board thinks I never support them on anything. I'm still going around and around about it. It's just not an easy call."