TAMPA — Ducks, fish and more than a few small-business owners can be forgiven for being a little anxious today.
Hillsborough County commissioners approved a $6.25 million subsidy Wednesday to land a Bass Pro Shops, the chain store mecca for hunters and recreational fisherman that is both a shopping palace and indoor expo.
"I have a very clear conscience in supporting this project," said Commissioner Sandra Murman, who as recently as last week expressed concern about the cost. "This is about economic development at its best."
The vote was 6-1 with Commissioner Kevin Beckner voting against the plan.
Supporters hailed the project as a rare coup: An incentive deal in which money goes toward road work that will support additional development in the Brandon area and will return the county's investment in the form of increased sales and property taxes within four years.
"In my 10 years on the County Commission, the county has not had an economic development opportunity that generates such an immediate return on investment," said Commission Chairman Ken Hagan, who has championed the project for the better part of two years.
Several business owners who have dogged the proposal for months left the meeting dejected and frustrated, feeling their concerns were disregarded. They have repeatedly questioned how their County Commission can even consider spending tax dollars on a project that will benefit an out-of-state megachain that will compete against them for customers.
"The bottom line is the guy with the biggest pocketbook won today," said Tom Mahoney, owner of marine supply company T.A. Mahoney, which has operated in Hillsborough County for three generations.
Bill Place, who owns two driving ranges that will compete against a new high-tech operator proposed as part of the development, noted that one of his businesses is operating on thin margins. A new range operated by London-based TopGolf won't help matters.
"I think there's a huge amount of fallout coming," he said.
Bass Pro Shops officials have been scouting locations in the Tampa Bay region for years. About two years ago, word leaked that the company and developers of the Estuary retail shopping complex near Westfield Brandon mall were seeking subsidies totaling $15 million, a portion of which would have gone directly to Bass Pro.
Hagan said Wednesday that the starting point of negotiations was $40 million, on par with deals the chain known for its fishing lure demonstration ponds has netted from other communities.
Commissioners gave the initial proposal a cool reception and negotiations broke off only to be rekindled.
A group led by Palm Beach Gardens developer David Verardo lowered the request to $8.25 million, reimbursement for road work it would complete in and near the development. No money would go directly to Bass Pro.
The amount was lowered further in recent weeks in return for the county agreeing to let Verardo's group speed up its timetable. The group will get paid after it extends Palm River Road through the 150-acre Estuary development, adds a traffic signal and turn lanes on Falkenburg Road and wins approval to open the Bass Pro store.
The Estuary, across Interstate 75 from Westfield Brandon, would include a 150,000-square-foot Bass Pro store, another 240,000 square feet of retail space, an 89,000-square-foot hotel and 60,000 square feet of entertainment area. Bass Pro real estate director Michael Dunham said after Wednesday's vote that the company hopes to open in Brandon sometime next year, possibly in the fall.
The outcome of the vote started to become clear as Commissioner Mark Sharpe spoke. He initially spoke out against the project as someone who has advocated that the county invest tax money in companies that will bring high-wage, high-tech jobs as an antidote to home building and strip malls driving the economy.
On a recent trip to the Midwest, Sharpe said he passed three Bass Pro Shops, each with full parking lots. He studied the numbers and said he came to believe that a comparatively small investment by the county will bring an increase in tax money, tourist dollars and jobs, even if they are not high-paying.
"If you're unemployed, it's an important job," he said. "This will be like a park, like a trail, like other things we've done to improve our quality of life."
Commissioner Les Miller said he, too, was moved from skepticism to support because of the jobs that will be created in a part of the county still experiencing high unemployment. And Commissioner Al Higginbotham said he was persuaded in part by Sharpe's logic after saying he couldn't support terms of the deal in recent weeks.
Beckner, the lone opposing vote, called Dunham before the board and then highlighted Bass Pro's place as one of the country's most successful private businesses, according to Forbes magazine. He said he welcomed the company but said it could well afford to enter the market without a government handout.
"Investing in retail space?" he said. "This is taking us back to the 1980s, and we are in real trouble."
Bill Varian can be reached at [email protected] or (813) 226-3387.