TAMPA — What shiny lure might help the bay area reel in outdoor megastore Bass Pro Shops?
Hillsborough County is dangling $15 million of public money before a developer who wants to turn land along Interstate 75 into a sportsman's paradise, according to records released Tuesday.
No deal has been struck. Negotiations continue, and the Hillsborough County Commission would have to approve an agreement. But the records, previously shielded by statute, show how the 2-year-old talks are going.
County Administrator Mike Merrill laid out the tentative financial incentives — half of which would pay for road improvements — in a Feb. 23 letter to Palm Beach Gardens developer David Verardo.
Merrill said his letter reflected agreement between the county and the developer, and that it's now up to the developer to work out a deal with Bass.
"It was a long process," Merrill said Tuesday, "and I'm hopeful it will bear some fruit."
Vin Marchetti of the law firm Greenberg Traurig represents developer Verardo and the I-75/Palm River Road LLC, owners of the land. He said Merrill's letter allows developers to continue talks with Bass, but added, "we're not at a point where we're ready to bring anything to the County Commission."
The site is on the west side of I-75, across from the Westfield Brandon mall, and bordered by Falkenburg and the Lee Roy Selmon Expressway.
Bass stores take nearly a year to build, said company spokesman Larry Whiteley. He wouldn't discuss plans for a Hillsborough store but said each store has a unique theme, often reflecting the history of an area and resembling tourist attractions, complete with turnstile entryways.
"They're not concrete block nondescript buildings," he said. "That's not us and never will be."
A Hillsborough store could open as soon as late 2013. But that would require commission approval, expedited permitting, road construction and, long before that, a deal with Bass — a chain so popular it often has the upper hand with local governments and has won hundreds of millions of dollars in public incentives nationwide.
What's so special about Bass?
For shoppers, it's size and inventory. A football field is 57,600 square feet. Bass stores start at 100,000 square feet and are stuffed with sporting equipment, guns, boats and entertainment. Merrill's letter assumes that the Hillsborough store would be at least 145,000 square feet.
For backers of economic development, the draw is different.
A new Bass could bring 369 full-time, permanent jobs to Hillsborough, though most would be low-paying. The real appeal: Nearly half the customers travel from outside a 25-mile range, suggesting tourist dollars on wheels.
"That is a main driver in why this deal is getting reviewed so thoroughly," said the county's chief financial administrator, Bonnie Wise. "Statistically, they show a great percentage of sales from out of the county. People spend hours. Some stay overnight."
For sleep-deprived shoppers, the proposed development, called the Estuary, would also include a 90-room hotel.
Merrill's letter cited the following numbers, characterizing them as "conservative":
• Bass could see initial annual sales of $61.8 million, generating state and local sales taxes. The property assessment could climb to $16.4 million, boosting taxes on land now used for agriculture.
• Along with the Bass store, 475,000 square feet of additional retail space is proposed. If built out and stable by 2020, the surrounding stores could generate $158 million in sales, while also beefing up the tax base.
• The projects could create 1,517 temporary construction jobs over five years and 1,327 retail jobs.
"We spent a lot of time vetting those numbers from a couple of different sources," Merrill said. "The thing you have to realize is that it's the total development, not just Bass."
Hillsborough could break even on its $15 million investment by 2018, he said. Here's how the money might be paid out under the deal proposed last month:
The developer would get $1.5 million if the store is ready to be occupied by Dec. 31, 2014, provided the developer has invested $25 million in capital.
The developer would be reimbursed $8 million toward $10 million in required road projects, which include widening Falkenburg Road to six lanes.
The developer would get paid up to $550,000 a year for 10 years if the Bass store achieves gross annual sales of $55 million, one third of which must be proven in audits to come from non-Hillsborough residents.
News researcher Carolyn Edds and staff writer Bill Varian contributed to this report. Patty Ryan can be reached at (813) 226-3382 or firstname.lastname@example.org.