Developers of complex that would include Bass Pro Shops lower request for public money

Published Jan. 24, 2013

TAMPA — Developers of a major retail complex that would include a Bass Pro Shops are offering to lower the amount of public money they are seeking by about $2 million.

In exchange, the I-75/Palm River Road LLC is seeking permission to build other parts of its Estuary project off Falkenburg Road in eastern Hillsborough County more quickly than it would be able to currently.

The proposal would lessen the amount of public money put into the project — to reimburse the developer for road work — to about $6.25 million.

"Bass Pro isn't receiving any subsidies, incentives or up-front money," said County Commission Chairman Ken Hagan, who confirmed details of the proposal. "It's just a creative way to try to allow the county to reduce its commitment."

Hagan confirmed that if the deal does go forward, developers have tentatively reached agreement with another company that would build a large golf driving range and entertainment complex at the 150-acre Estuary. He identified the operator as TopGolf, founded in London, which operates similar venues in fewer than a dozen locations in England and the United States.

TopGolf centers feature three decks of heated and cooled driving bays. Customers not only can work out kinks in their swing but compete with each other using microchipped golf balls to hit targets, drive the ball farthest or participate in other games.

The business also comes with a restaurant, bar and conference center and plays host for events ranging from business meetings to bachelorette parties.

"This is indicative of the level of interest that Bass Pro can create out there," said Beth Leytham, a spokeswoman for the development group.

A TopGolf spokeswoman said she could not confirm a new site until an agreement is finalized.

Bass Pro has indeed attracted interest, and confirmation of TopGolf as a possible companion to the sporting goods retailer will no doubt draw more.

The megastore has been rumored to be scouting the Tampa Bay region for years. Then early last year, county officials confirmed they were considering a $15 million incentive package to lure Bass Pro to Hillsborough, with much of the money going to the giant retailer.

Bass Pro offers a large line of recreational and outdoor-themed gear, from fishing rods to camouflage bedspreads. Its stores are custom-built, featuring things like stocked indoor fish ponds for customers to see lures demonstrated, restaurants and taxidermy. The proposed 150,000-square-foot store near Westfield Brandon mall would even have bowling lanes.

But small business owners protested their government subsidizing a major new competitor, and the proposal failed to gain traction among commissioners. So developers came back with a lower request, for $8.25 million in reimbursements, if they agreed to widen and extend roads serving the immediate area.

Estuary developers would get the money only after Bass Pro is built, Falkenburg Road is widened and Palm River Road is extended through the Estuary. Still greeted by howls of protest from small business owners, commissioners voted 6-1 in December to delay an up-or-down decision.

Commissioner Al Higginbotham, who has been working with small business owners to gauge if there is a level of public assistance they would support for the Estuary, says he's still hearing skepticism. He's skeptical, too.

"I have hammered on getting the numbers down," he said. "I'm still not there yet."

Local business opponents say the lower amount does little to change their mind.

"Fifty cents would be too much to give to that development," said Tom Mahoney, owner of T.A. Mahoney, a marine accessories company. "If they can't pay for the infrastructure around there they have no business coming to this community to begin with."

Modifications of development agreements in place before the Bass Pro proposal emerged that would speed development of the Estuary are scheduled to go to commissioners for public hearing Feb. 6 and 13. Details of the financial agreement would go to the board Feb. 20.

Hagan said while he appreciates business owners' concerns, the selling points are high. Money would go toward road work that will be needed at some point. The county will make the money back through higher sales and property taxes within four years and turn a $3 million profit annually after that. As many as 3,000 jobs would get created by the Estuary in construction and retail jobs, the county estimates.

"I understand the issues and concerns. They're valid," Hagan said. "I don't know in my time on the board that we've ever had an economic development opportunity like this."