Merchants: Hillsborough's Bass Pro Shops lure is unfair
TAMPA - Three years ago, when the national chain Boaters World went out of business, Charlie Wynperle saw opportunity. The Brandon native had 13 years of experience managing Boaters World stores. He wanted to use his experience and connections in Brandon to reopen and rebrand the Adamo Drive store as Boater's Choice. He persuaded a father and son in Lakeland to buy the property, and he managed it to profitability. It was a classic stroke of American entrepreneurship that was done without help from taxpayers. And that's what nags Wynperle about Hillsborough County's proposal to give $15 million worth of incentives to get outdoors retail giant Bass Pro Shops to locate on Falkenburg Road, a 10-minute walk from Boater's Choice. "The county didn't step in and give us a concession to reopen our doors," Wynperle said. "So it bothers us from a business standpoint why they drop their underwear to bring a new business like Bass when we were scrambling to reopen a few years back."Other outdoors store owners and managers chimed in with similar complaints that the county is using taxpayer money to create an uneven playing field. Some Bass Pro Shops include attractions such as fishing ponds, bowling alleys and rifle ranges, amenities with a "wow factor" that don't need a boost from government, they say. "I say if a business is economically sound and on good footing, they shouldn't ask for incentives. That's part of the cost of doing business," said Doug Jackson, one of the owners of Bill Jackson's in Pinellas Park. "If they bring them in and give them all these incentives, it's an unfair competitive advantage." Government economic development incentives usually are employed to lure high-paying jobs in industries such as manufacturing or biological sciences. Enterprise Florida, the state's economic development agency, does not offer inducements to attract retail stores. Retail typically follows population growth, said Bob Rohrlack Jr., president and chief executive of the Greater Tampa Chamber of Commerce and former senior vice president for business retention and recruitment at Enterprise Florida. "If you have to induce retail to come, the market must not be able to support it," Rohrlack said. But county leaders say Bass Pro is a special case because it is considered a "destination" retailer, meaning it draws customers from a radius of 100 miles or more. Those visitors create a ripple effect by spending money at other stores, restaurants and hotels. That means more tax money for the county. County Administrator Mike Merrill said he struggled with the idea of using economic development money for a retail store, which pays relatively modest salaries. But after some research, including visiting Bass Pro stores, Merrill concluded the incentives were worthwhile. One factor that changed his mind was his belief in the theory, advanced by Bass Pro, that their stores actually help other retailers. Merrill used the analogy of a retail market as a pie. "Instead of Bass coming in and gobbling up all the pieces, they expand the pie," Merrill said. "They sort of redefine the marketplace because they are all about educating their customers and trying to expand the market rather than cannibalizing other stores." Company spokesman Larry Whiteley said new Bass Pro stores bring outdoor enthusiasts to the area to shop. Sometimes Bass Pro doesn't carry the item those customers want, so they patronize other stores. "If we don't have something and we know (other stores) do, we'll send them to that store, and vice versa," Whiteley said. Merrill said biotechnology industries are nice, but they take a long time to get established and often don't produce the "home run" products that make multimillion-dollar incentive packages worthwhile. A premium retailer such as Bass Pro creates jobs quicker and fills the need for midlevel incomes. "Not everybody is a bioscientist," Merrill said. Key to the debate is the promised payoff — economic development and increased tax revenue. The store would anchor a 21-acre development called the Estuary, which would include a hotel, 475,000 square feet of additional retail space and 27,500 square feet of office or commercial. The county estimates that 1,517 temporary construction jobs would be created to build The Estuary and make improvements to Falkenburg and Palm River roads. The 145,000-square-foot Bass Pro store would employ 369 workers, with 1,327 full-time retail jobs created throughout the development. County commission Chairman Ken Hagan noted the bulk of the incentives will be used for the road improvements, which he said will spur economic development beyond the Bass Pro store. The county Metropolitan Planning Organization had targeted the roads for improvement in its long-range transportation plan. The Bass Pro incentives would start the work quicker, providing needed construction jobs, Hagan said. "The jobs being created for this amount of money is staggering compared to other incentives the county has given in the past," Hagan said. But critics charge that Bass Pro's economic development promises, which the company uses to leverage incentives from local governments, often don't pan out. A Buffalo, N.Y., nonprofit, the Public Accountability Initiative, detailed these failures in a report, "Fishing for Taxpayer Cash." According to the report, Bass Pro-anchored projects in the United States have won more than $500 million in taxpayer subsidies. Of the 25 completed Bass Pro projects examined, the largest subsidy was $84 million for the Riverview waterfront complex in Mesa, Ariz. Voters approved the incentives after promoters promised Bass Pro Shops and the co-anchor, Walmart, would draw new development. But most of the tenants that moved into the development were relocations, including the Walmart. So the project did not generate the increased sales tax revenue promised by developers. The Arizona Republic newspaper, in an editorial about the project, said "critics were right when they said that Riverview would cannibalize retail" from another struggling mall. "Economists and subsidy experts say these kinds of retail subsidies don't make sense," said Kevin Connor, one of the authors of the report. "They don't increase the size of the pie. They just divide it up differently and they tend to favor those businesses that are subsidized." Bruce Duncan, owner of Power Source Marine in Seffner, sees the Bass Pro deal as a "double-edged sword." He welcomes the jobs the store would create and he thinks his shop will pick up some repair and maintenance business servicing boats sold by Bass Pro. But when asked about the incentives, Duncan was unequivocal. "I agree the county should do the infrastructure because we're behind in that," he said. "But to pay them to come here? They didn't pay me to come here."
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