Outfitters bristle at Hillsborough's incentive plan for Bass Pro Shops

Published March 26, 2012

TAMPA — Vince Scanio, his family and their dozen or so employees have been selling fishing gear and repairing rods and reels to several generations of Hillsborough residents.

He's watched as competitors of his Southeastern Fishing Tackle Liquidators in Tampa Heights folded their tents in the past few years, victims of the unforgiving economy.

So Scanio was astounded to learn recently that the Hillsborough County government is dangling $15 million in incentives to the Springfield, Mo.-based Bass Pro Shops chain to bring one of its megastores here.

"I've gotten nothing from the government," Scanio said. "I was born and raised in Tampa. It infuriates me to even think about them doing that."

Infuriating. Unfair. Terrible. Those are just a few of the printable choice words local sporting goods and outdoors retailers used to describe their reaction to the proposed deal.

Those reactions, unwavering among the nearly dozen businesses contacted by the Tampa Bay Times, would seem to foreshadow a packed and angry crowd if the proposal makes it before county commissioners.

"Better than half the people in our industry are out of business," said Tom Mahoney. For 66 years, his T.A. Mahoney marine accessories company has operated just a few miles from the proposed Bass Pro Shops location in east Hillsborough. "They're giving $15 million to a company to put the rest of us out of business."

A little more than a week ago, county officials revealed the product of two years of negotiations with developers of the Estuary, a proposed commercial complex that would include a Bass Pro Shops store of at least 145,000 square feet.

The development, on the west side of Interstate 75 across from the Westfield Brandon mall, is situated between Falkenburg Road and the Lee Roy Selmon Expressway. It would include 475,000 square feet of other shopping space and a hotel with at least 90 rooms.

The project is expected to create 1,517 temporary construction jobs over five years, and 1,327 permanent retail jobs. Bass Pro Shops alone is expected to offer 369 full-time jobs and generate sales of $61.8 million annually. The site's taxable value could reach $16.4 million by the store's projected opening date in late 2013.

Governments typically don't offer incentive money to stores, which generally pay comparatively low wages. Still, Bass Pro Shops has received tens of millions from local governments across the nation.

That's because the company has been selective with its locations, which have a wide appeal because they include restaurants, museums and water features. Advocates say the store will draw people from 100 or more miles away rather than simply compete for a slice of the existing market for outdoor gear.

Hillsborough County Commission Chairman Ken Hagan said taxes received from the development will pay off the county's investment within five years.

"It's a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity," he said. "I think there will always be a market for your smaller companies that can offer personalized service. I think it will expand the pie."

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He noted that many of the county's incentive deals to lure business are awarded to speculative ventures such as bioscience that may or may not create jobs.

"We should be trying to encourage job creation at all levels," Hagan said. "That's a lot of jobs for people who could use them."

Small-business owners in the area are skeptical about Bass Pro Shops as a "destination retail" store. The company has two stores within 150 miles of Tampa, in Orlando and Fort Myers.

County Administrator Mike Merrill said Bass Pro Shops' business model depends on visits from out-of-town shoppers. And the county's incentive package is partly tied to the company demonstrating at least a third of its business comes from outside Hillsborough County.

Based on that, "I would say this is a very unique situation," said lawyer Vin Marchetti, who is representing the property owner and Palm Beach Gardens-based developer. "The data collected all seem to indicate there are going to be destination users. It's been pretty thoroughly reviewed."

Some business owners said it's not the competition they are concerned about: They unanimously objected to tax money being spent to enable that competition.

Charles O'Meara, a marketing executive with Apopka-based Shoot Straight Inc., said his company coexists with Bass Pro Shops in other markets and employees sometimes refer customers to each other. Shoot Straight operates seven gun ranges and gun shops in the state.

Each of its stores, including one on U.S. 301 N near the proposed Bass Pro Shops store, cost millions to build and develop and employ 40 to 50 people.

Yet, "in over 30 years of business, no one from the government has ever offered us a dime," O'Meara wrote in an email. "So you can imagine our bewilderment as to why the (county) is offering our desperately needed tax revenue to Bass Pro Shops."

Outcast Watersports on U.S. 92 E is less than 3 miles from the proposed Bass Pro Shops site.

"It's choosing sides," Outcast owner Jon Reinke said. "That's the problem. How can that be fair?"

Of the $15 million in incentives being offered to developers, $8 million will go toward road work, including widening Falkenburg Road, which in turn should foster more development, Hagan said. However, much of that will also go toward extending an existing road through the development.

The rest will be paid in largely annual installments if the company meets certain sales goals.

There is no assurance yet that the county and Bass Pro Shops will reach a deal, which would then go to commissioners for consideration.

Bass Pro Shops officials could not be reached for comment.

Merrill, the county administrator, said he understands the skepticism from competing businesses. That's part of the reason the incentive package took two years to negotiate.

"I struggled for a year with this deal and was skeptical for much of that time for a lot of reasons," he said. "I'm recommending it because we've done our due diligence and we can demonstrate that we feel there is a return on the investment. It's not huge, but it's compelling and it's reasonable."

Bill Varian can be reached at (813) 226-3387 or