The offer to spend $15 million in tax money to attract a Bass Pro Shops store represents what's wrong with Hillsborough County's job development efforts. It would create low-tech jobs, undermine existing businesses and pay for unneeded road work. It's the kind of thinking that puts Tampa Bay behind similar metropolitan areas, and the county should move beyond this traditional approach and start being creative.
Details of the proposal, in the works for two years, were first disclosed Tuesday. In exchange for a developer bringing a Bass Pro Shops outlet to the Brandon area, the county would provide $1.5 million for construction, another $8 million for nearby road work and up to $5.5 million over a 10-year period, depending on the volume of sales. The county might also make available other cash incentives such as credits for transportation impact fees.
County Administrator Mike Merrill said a store — expected to be roughly three times the size of a football field — could create 369 full-time jobs and add millions of dollars to the tax base. A retail, hotel and commercial complex alongside the store, if fully built by 2020, could create 1,517 temporary constructions jobs and 1,327 full-time retail jobs once the project was fully open. Merrill said the county could break even on its cash assistance after several years. The proposal is now between Bass and Palm Beach Gardens developer David Verardo. Any deal would then go to the County Commission.
But there are at least three things wrong with this fishy deal. First, the county never breaks even. It might get a bump from increased property, sales and hotel tax collections. But it doesn't recover the cash it would lay out in the first place. And this money would give a competitive edge to Bass, the nearby retail and commercial complex and the hotel that existing businesses do not enjoy. Helping a big-box store at the expense of smaller retailers amounts to Robin Hood in reverse.
Second, tax incentives for job development are intended to reflect a public purpose — attract high-wage jobs, diversify the economy or help develop a niche industry. Bass would do none of these things. For all the hoopla about how Bass shops are a draw, this still is a retail operation. And retail follows people. The bay area has 4 million residents; Bass either has a market or not. And the county certainly should not be ginning up an established business when a third or more of its customers are expected to be non-Hillsborough residents.
Finally, and most importantly, pursuing low-hanging fruit such as retail distracts the county from contributing to the region's new focus on building a name in personalized medicine, defense technology, marine science and other high-wage industries.
Details of the Bass proposal came out on the very day that the region's business development group, the Tampa Bay Partnership, announced that the bay area languishes behind Dallas, Raleigh, N.C., and other similar markets in developing high-tech industries. Texas Gov. Rick Perry announced last week that Apple Inc. will expand its campus in Austin, thanks to $21 million in state subsidies. Texas gets Apple — and Hillsborough pursues the worm.