Saturday, June 23, 2018
Business

County officials eye Bass Pro Shops for east Hillsborough

TAMPA — Its arrival in these parts has been rumored for so long it's taken on almost mythical status, like some fabled 16-point buck seen at the edge of the swamp but never photographed.

Now some officials are making a concerted push to lure Bass Pro Shops, the giant toy store and playground for hunters, fishermen and general outdoor enthusiasts, to the Tampa Bay market.

Hillsborough County's administrator and commission chairman are traveling today to Gulf Coast Town Center in Fort Myers, home of one of the nearest Bass Pro Shops. There they will meet with company president Jim Hagale, and representatives of prospective developers, to see what it would take to land a store in eastern Hillsborough County.

They will tour the Fort Myers store and huddle in the private Hemingway Room for discussions. Plans for the get-together were firmed up in a Thursday conference call noted on the calendars of County Administrator Mike Merrill and Commission Chairman Ken Hagan.

"We're meeting … to see if we can come together with some agreement on moving forward, or not," Merrill said.

Bass Pro Shops and/or the developer are seeking some form of taxpayer subsidy for the project, in which the outdoor shop would serve as an anchor to a larger complex of businesses at Falkenburg Road and the Lee Roy Selmon Crosstown Expressway. Merrill declined to discuss the nature or amount of the subsidy being discussed, citing state law that shields such deals from disclosure until they are final.

Hagan did not return phone calls seeking comment, and Larry Whitely, communications manager for Bass Pro Shops, said the company does not discuss prospective locations.

Vin Marchetti, a lawyer representing the owners and developer of the prospective site, declined to discuss today's meeting or divulge his clients.

"I am actively involved in the negotiations," is all he'd say.

Merrill said individual players have been holding discussions for a long period and that the point of today's meeting is to get all the parties together to begin finalizing a proposal. Any subsidy proposal would need to go to the full Board of County Commissioners for approval.

"I really think we all want to try and bring this in for a landing," Merrill said. "I think we're all hopeful we can come away with something where we can have at least conceptual agreement."

Talk of Springfield, Mo.-based Bass Pro Shops opening a store in the Tampa Bay region has bubbled since at least the early 2000s. It has shown up on site plans or developer wish lists everywhere from the Shops at Wiregrass to the Florida State Fairgrounds to a redeveloped Tropicana Field (should the Tampa Bay Rays leave there).

The massive stores hold a special allure for sportsmen, with their mix of clothing, sporting equipment, guns, boats and entertainment all housed in buildings that range from 100,000 to 400,000 square feet. Each shop is built to reflect its setting, with some including museums, restaurants, waterfalls, bowling lanes and fish ponds stocked with local species so pros can demonstrate the effectiveness of lures.

Economic development boosters describe such stores as destination retail, places that attract customers from 100 miles out or more. Tourist attractions. That potential here is unclear because, along with Fort Myers, there is a Bass Pro Shops in Orlando.

In 2010, Hagan helped secure voter approval for an economic incentive plan that allows the county to refund a portion of property taxes to certain types of new and expanding businesses for up to 10 years. He cited Bass Pro Shops as a likely beneficiary of the proposal, though actual guidelines for the incentives appear to exclude stores.

Following the vote, public word of Bass Pro Shops coming to the region all but disappeared.

The shops, or the developments they anchor, have repeatedly taken advantage of taxpayer assistance elsewhere before opening, whether in the form of tax rebates or road or other infrastructure upgrades. The subsidies have run into the tens of millions of dollars in many cases.

The Buffalo-based nonprofit Public Accountability Initiative documented more than $500 million in public subsides awarded to Bass Pro Shops-associated developments last decade, largely using newspaper accounts. In that time, the retailer expanded from 14 locations to more than 50, its report said.

Merrill refused to discuss even a range of possible subsidy offers. He did say any incentive will not come from the property tax rebate program Hagan pushed. And he said he'll be evaluating any proposal based on its prospective return to taxpayers and potential for job creation.

"I want to make sure we get good value," he said.

Times researcher John Martin contributed to this report, which includes information from AmmoLand.com. Bill Varian can be reached at (813) 226-3387 or [email protected]

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