Sunday, June 17, 2018
Business

Tampa Bay wins a Bass Pro Shops site but at what cost?

The Hillsborough County Commission thumbed its nose Wednesday at those low-wage job "elitists" and approved a controversial $6.25 million in public incentives that should assure the arrival of Bass Pro Shops' coveted Outdoor World store near Brandon.

The deal is expected to create up to 250 modest paying jobs.

But that's not what is driving this project. Bass Pro Shops claims to be the biggest tourist draw in its home state of Missouri. Bigger than the Gateway Arch in St. Louis or Mark Twain's home.

And Bass Pro Shops has long pitched itself to metro areas like Tampa Bay as a "destination retailer" — a store so hot in the minds of outdoorsy folks that they will travel long distances to wander aisles of camo clothing, fishing and hunting gear, boat supplies, guns and T-shirts.

Here's the catch.

Tampa Bay's coming late to the Bass Pro party. More than seven years ago I often trekked across Interstate 4 to Bass Pro Shops' store (called Outdoor World) in Orlando when my son was part of a local Boy Scout troop. I even dragged my wife there, who briefly enjoyed looking at the selection of women's clothing.

Now Florida is filling up with Bass Pro locations. Along with Orlando, Fort Myers, Miami, Islamorada in the Keys, Fort Lauderdale and Destin on the Panhandle already have one. The company has also announced plans to open additional Florida stores near Jacksonville, Palm Bay on the east coast and in Tallahassee.

With Brandon, that adds up to 10 Outdoor World stores just in Florida.

I'm a fan, even now, of Outdoor World. But let's be clear. The big buzz to shop Bass Pro Shops is fading. Sampling 12 kinds of "Uncle Buck's" brand of beef jerky goes only so far.

Still, Bass Pro Shops still falls into that exclusive mix of "must have" retailers fancied by many a proud metro area. They range from the Apple Store, H&M and Ikea to The Container Store, Whole Foods and Trader Joe's.

What's it worth to attract them?

In Brandon, Outdoor World will be located in Estuary, a new retail complex across Interstate 75 from the Westfield Brandon mall. It is expected to open next year with the remaining complex slated for a 2017 debut.

That's a key detail. Luring Bass Pro Shops with $6.25 million in road improvements means Estuary gains a powerful anchor tenant that should help fill the rest of the new complex.

Nearly ever Bass Pro Shops location seems to stir up controversy over how much in local incentives are used to attract a new store.

In 2010, a study called "Fishing for Taxpayer's Cash" by the nonprofit research group Public Accountability Initiative found that Bass Pro-anchored projects had won more than $500 million in taxpayer subsidies.

In struggling Buffalo, N.Y., the city spent nine years and waived tens of millions of dollars trying to win a Bass Pro Shops commitment only to be spurned by the chain in 2010.

It must be nice to be a retailer that gets so much public money thrown their way just to set up shop in a town.

Local stores that must now compete with another tax-subsidized behemoth are no doubt less than thrilled and surely less likely to expand.

Robert Trigaux can be reached at [email protected]

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