TAMPA — If it weren't for the name — Bass Pro Shops — there might not be a controversy about Hillsborough County's incentive package of road improvements for the outdoor retailer's proposed new Brandon site.
Despite the raging debate about whether government should be dangling tax dollars to help create low- to moderate-wage retail jobs, the county has done so at least twice before with hardly a voice raised in protest.
In June, commissioners approved with no debate paying developers of the planned SouthShore Commons mall in Riverview $3 million of public money in exchange for widening parts of Big Bend Road. As Hillsborough County Commission Chairman Ken Hagan likes to point out, that was with no anchor tenant disclosed.
And in the mid 1990s, Hillsborough commissioners agreed to pay developers nearly 10 times that amount to widen roads near what would become Citrus Park Mall.
"In hindsight, we should have left Bass Pro out of the whole discussion," said Hagan, speaking of the anchor tenant of the Estuary retail development proposed across Interstate 75 from the Westfield Brandon mall.
It is the prospect of landing Bass Pro, with its reputation as a tourist-drawing shopping destination, that has the county considering offering $6.25 million in incentives to developers of the Estuary in exchange for doing road work they were obligated to do anyway.
It's also the prospect of Bass Pro that could cause the deal to go south.
The fact that the county would consider using tax dollars to help lure the megastore has drawn howls of protest from those who already have businesses catering to outdoor enthusiasts. Add to the mix Bass Pro's reputation for wringing tens of millions of dollars in taxpayer subsidies from governments around the country even as the company opens more stores.
The initial proposal in Hillsborough called for a $15 million incentive package that included money for road work as well as direct cash payments to Bass Pro. It came back as an $8.25 million repayment to the developer of the Estuary for extending Palm River Road through the property and adding a turn signal and turn lanes where it would meet Falkenburg Road. Developers have since lowered the request to $6.25 million if they secure permission to build stores more quickly.
Bass Pro would get none of the money directly. But small-business owning proponents and activists still cast the money as a Bass Pro subsidy.
As marine supply store owner Tom Mahoney put it this week, "You're writing a check to the developer, but the money would go to lowering the cost incurred by Bass Pro Shops and the other retailers that would be moving into the development."
It would not be a first.
In June, commissioners voted unanimously to give $3 million to developer of SouthShore Commons, a development that includes a 1-million-square-foot mall, offices and hotel rooms. The money would come as repayment for the developer widening Big Bend Road from U.S. 301 to Simmons Loop Road, portions of which it had to do under a prior agreement with the county.
The rationale: The road widening is needed for the quickly developing area and it would be a while before the county could widen portions of the road that are its responsibility. County officials believe it will help ease congestion near Westfield Brandon, the closest mall option for residents of southern Hillsborough, while drawing shoppers from Manatee County.
At SouthShore, the money will come from impact fees charged for new development in the area whereas the Estuary would get its money from sales tax reserves.
Commissioner Sandy Murman was the only one who spoke preceding the vote, and it was to thank county staff for making it happen.
"It's a little bigger," Murman said. "I think on the Bass Pro thing, the struggle I've had is over the amount of dollars that have been requested."
The Citrus Park Mall subsidy of the mid 1990s dwarfed that. In that case, developers got approval for nearly $30 million in impact fees charged in a zone around the mall in exchange largely for widening Gunn Highway and Sheldon Road nearby.
Attorney Vin Marchetti represents the Estuary development group and property owner as well as the SouthShore Commons developers. He also worked on the Citrus Park mall project as a then-assistant county attorney. With the Estuary, he said, the county only pays its incentive money after the road work is done and Bass Pro is approved to open.
"So the county is in much better position, I think," Marchetti said. "They've got an instant tax base to work from and they've got a road that will have been built by the developer."
While Bass Pro has proved to be a stigma for the Estuary, County Administrator Mike Merrill said it offers another distinction from prior deals. Bass Pro has a track record of sales. And based in part on that record, the county's consultants estimated Hillsborough will break even on its investment within four years and start making money after that.
"In one sense, it's made the deal a little bit more difficult to get done," Merrill said. "But on the other hand, from a business point of view, it's extremely helpful because it really helps us to quantify what the benefit will be. The potential for success is much greater and the risk is much lower."
Bill Varian can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or (813) 226-3387.