The Hillsborough County Commissioners on Feb. 20 voted 6-1 to spend $6.25 million to secure road improvements necessary to bring Bass Pro Shops to Brandon, but that doesn't end the debate over the issue of using tax dollars to support a big-business development.
The issue drew a heated and passionate debate, both at the meeting and in the months leading up to the vote, as articulated in the number of people who attended meetings to voice their concerns.
Sporting "Say No to Bass Pro" stickers on their shirts, Vance Tice and Raymond Grace were two such opponents at the Fred B. Karl County Center on Wednesday.
"They should pay their way," Raymond Grau, who works with Lee Fisher International, a sport-fishing and net-fishing outfitter, said in an interview outside the county meeting room. "Why should a multi-million corporation get a tax break to get a toehold here? If they're such a great corporate [community supporter], why don't they do the right thing, and don't accept taxpayer money?"
Grace McComas agreed.
"We're not opposed to Brandon Pro Shops coming here, doing business and hiring people in an attempt to make a profit," she said in an interview after the vote. "But let them do it on their own dollar like every other small business owner had to do when they opened for business with no incentives and no free passes."
Commissioner Ken Hagan was ready to address these issues. Spearheading the issue since its inception — when the price tag was as high as $40 million, then whittled down to $15 million and $8 million — Hagan presented the measure as a win-win for the county and its taxpayers. He said a high return on investment will quickly be realized with the opening of a Bass Pro Shops in Brandon, just west of the Causeway Boulevard and Falkenburg Road intersection.
Hagan spoke to his colleagues from the same podium used by taxpayers to address the Hillsborough County Board of County Commissioners; overhead and to the side, his slide-show presentation was displayed on oversized screens, giving testament to the value he sees in supporting the Estuary development, where Bass Pro Shops is slated to take root.
A great attempt was made to discuss the project not in terms of a handout to Bass Pro Shops, but as an investment in transportation network improvements — in this case, to Palm River and Falkenburg roads and to the Delaney Lake Drive and Falkenburg Road intersection — paid for with funds from the county's sales tax reserve fund.
"Addressing infrastructure in advance of development is what smart planning is all about," Hagan said.
The property today, Hagan said, brings in $800 a year in property taxes. Investing $6.25 million to bring Bass Pro Shops to Brandon, he added, will, at build-out, net the county $113 million in annual economic impact.
Without the allocation, the project could be in jeopardy, Hagan has said. He noted at the Feb. 20 meeting that he had not been in "secret meetings" with Bass Pro representatives, as had been reported. He said negotiations with Bass Pro Shops and the developer had been handled by Hillsborough County Administrator Mike Merrill.
Still, "simply stated," Hagan said, it could be "Hillsborough County or Pasco County," should the deal fall through.
Hillsborough Commissioner Kevin Beckner did not seem to be bothered by that. Before casting the sole vote against the measure, he asked Michael Dunham, representing Bass Pro Shops, to answer a couple questions.
He asked Dunham to project annual sales and to discuss why the Brandon location was a prime spot for Bass Pro Shops.
Dunham demured from discussing sales, stating the private nature of his business and its competitive marketplace, and said Brandon offered regional access and was expected to deliver the same types of results as Bass Pro Shops in Orlando and Fort Lauderdale, which are, for the company, among its top performers.
Beckner, at the ready, noted that Forbes in 2012 had ranked Bass Pro Shops as No. 99 in a list of America's largest private companies, with revenues of $3.92 billion.
"It seems like $6.25 million is a very small amount of money to give up your opportunity to come to the Tampa Bay area," Beckner said. "Why is it important to seal this deal?"
Dunham replied that the deal is based on the ability to access the property on which Bass Pro Shops will take up shop. "We didn't require the county build the roads," he said. But "it's essential to have access."
Before casting his vote in favor of the measure, Hillsborough Commissioner Mark Sharpe made it clear that he had been an early detractor. That is, he said, until he and his family drove cross-country to Nebraska and made it a point to visit Bass Pro shops along the way.
"The parking lots were full, [there were] lots and lots of people," Sharpe said. "On the ride back my son wanted to go by Memphis, to see The Pyramid." That's where city leaders have been preparing "the shuttered downtown area to be transformed by Bass Pro Shops into a tourist and retail destination," according to a December 2012 online report at The Commercial Appeal.
"That affected me," Sharpe said.
Commissioners Sandy Murman and Les Miller Jr. said they, too, had initial concerns with the measure they eventually supported.
"This will be our very first economic development area with a development actually going in there and happening in a very short period of time," Murman said. "This is a great thing to happen for us."
Bass Pro Shops representatives said the Brandon store would open in 2014.
Miller said Bass Pro Shops has expressed its commitment to working with minority businesses. "Ten percent as a start," Miller said, but "I know we can go higher than that."
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