The proposal to spend $6.25 million in tax money to bring a Bass Pro Shops to Brandon is built on myth, spin and flawed economics. Hillsborough County commissioners should focus on the fundamental unfairness of the deal on Wednesday and reject it.
Myth: The land is worthless.
Commission Chairman Ken Hagan, the driving force behind the project, says the county-funded road improvements near the proposed site at I-75 and the Selmon Expressway are a small price for boosting the value of property that he derisively notes generates "a whopping" $732 in property taxes every year. What he doesn't say is that the land's value is suppressed because the same property owners who want millions of dollars in free roads now take advantage of tax breaks for agriculture that have reduced the land's tax liability by more than 99 cents on the dollar. Move the cows, and the land's taxable value is $8.6 million, reflecting the location's development value because of its proximity to two major thoroughfares.
Myth: Job diversity.
County officials defend the public investment by claiming the Bass project will diversify job creation efforts. It won't. Sales already is the single largest private-sector occupation in Hillsborough and is twice the size of the county's high-tech sector. The public would be paying to lure jobs with below-average salaries, fueling the very cycle that continues to hold back the regional economy.
Myth: Bass receives no direct benefit.
That is flat wrong. Unlike its arrangement in many places elsewhere, Bass would own the Hillsborough store rather than lease the space. That makes the improvements to the nearby Falkenburg and Palm River Roads — which Hagan calls "a hard asset" — direct benefits to Bass as a property owner and anchor tenant in the 150-acre, mixed-use development. Bass would also benefit financially by dedicating the new roads to the county, leaving the taxpayers to maintain a road network that moves traffic in and out of the development.
Myth: Hillsborough has done this before.
The county defends the handout by claiming it did the same for the SouthShore development in Riverview. But that case was entirely different. The improvements to Big Bend Road in SouthShore would serve a broad public benefit; the road work for Bass, by comparison, involves a loop road to nowhere that would move traffic between the outdoors superstore and its adjacent retail. The Big Bend project was on the county's long-range transportation plan (Bass is not) because the roadway is recognized for its broad public use. And the county scored more commercial development under SouthShore while committing half as much ($3 million) for roads. The scale and terms are so different between the two that SouthShore cannot be seen as a useful precedent.
There are other questions about the projected sales figures and the veracity of claims that Bass would act as a tourist draw to bring in overnight visitors. But those are side issues, for the only condition of receiving the county money is that the Bass store merely open. Bass could indeed be a welcome addition. But there is nothing here that cries out for special treatment. Bass should be held to the same standard as others in the business world who pay their own way to compete in the private market, and the County Commission should reject this one-sided deal.