TAMPA — Small-business owners and activists called Wednesday on Hillsborough County commissioners to reject a road-funding proposal that would pave the way for a new Bass Pro Shops store.
Wearing stickers that read "Say No to Bass Pro," speakers called the idea a "shell game," "corporate welfare" and an unfair giveaway that will put small-business owners under.
"It worries me to see our tax funds being used to bring in big national corporations, ones that also are offering at best minimum-wage jobs with no benefits," said resident Whelan Blannie.
Their comments came during the first of two public hearings on a change to a development agreement that would help speed construction of a large retail complex in Brandon called the Estuary that would include a Bass Pro store. Commissioners took no action, with a final public hearing scheduled Tuesday.
Later Wednesday, Hillsborough County Commission Chairman Ken Hagan said he is aware that officials with Bass Pro had dinner Tuesday night with a developer representative in Pasco County. He said he knows the company has looked at locations in Pasco, including the Shops of Wiregrass in Wesley Chapel, and believes a store could end up there if things fall through in Hillsborough.
"I am confident that Bass Pro will build in our region," Hagan said. "But should Hillsborough not work out, they have absolutely no problem going 10 miles up the road."
A representative of Bass Pro declined to confirm a meeting, but said it's common for his company to be approached once it has shown its interest in an area.
"It seems like we're presented with more opportunities in a situation similar to what's going on in Hillsborough County," Michael Dunham said. "Companies always have to have a Plan B."
Palm Beach Gardens developer David Verardo is proposing a 150-acre retail complex across from the Westfield Brandon mall. Early last year, Hagan confirmed that the development included a Bass Pro Shops, a chain megastore devoted to outdoor enthusiasts that claims to draw tourist shoppers.
At the time, the proposal included plans to award $15 million in subsidies, a portion of which would have gone directly to Bass Pro. When the idea drew a cool reception from other commissioners, developers I-75/Palm River Road LLC lowered the amount to $8.25 million, all of which would be reimbursements for road work it would complete in or near the complex.
Developers have since said they could lower the request to $6.25 million if commissioners approve the deal that was before them Wednesday. Terms of any reimbursement would go before commissioners for a vote Feb. 20.
Currently, developers can build 150,000 square feet of retail space in the first phase of construction in return for extending Palm River Road through the property. Under the proposed change, they would agree to add a traffic signal where the extension meets Falkenburg Road, which also would get new turn lanes, something previously not planned until later. In exchange, they would initially get to build 350,000 square feet of retail.
Commissioners signaled they had no problem with the change, since they make similar modifications fairly regularly, while not saying whether they were warming to payment for roads.
They heard mainly speakers who oppose it, including former Tampa City Council member Linda Saul-Sena. She noted that the road work is not on the county's long-range list of needs, despite a massive backlog.
Current Tampa council member Mary Mulhern, a candidate for the County Commission seat Mark Sharpe will vacate in 2014, sent a letter to the board on city stationery last week asking it to reject the cash payment.
"I remain fully supportive of new development, when its benefits to the members of the community outweigh the benefits to the developer," she wrote. "I do not believe this to be the case in the instance of the Estuary."