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Saturday, Oct 25, 2014
Joe Henderson Columns

Henderson: Bass Pro “tourist destination” hype was just hot air

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Part of the appeal of Bass Pro Shops used to be the snob factor. There weren’t many of them, so communities wanted what they didn’t have. That’s why your Hillsborough County leaders were willing to offer the multibillion-dollar chain millions of your tax dollars to build a store in Brandon.

But the hype sounded fishy from the start — especially the part about people driving 200 miles or more and staying for days just for the privilege of roaming the aisles and buying stuff.

“Oftentimes, a family will come spend the weekend,” County Administrator Mike Merrill told The Tampa Tribune in March 2012. “Bass is the attraction, but then they go to other venues that produce other tourist taxes and other sales taxes.”

Well, guess what?

The Sarasota Herald-Tribune reported a 140,000-square-foot Bass Pro store will open there “sooner rather than later” off Interstate 75. That’s about one hour from here.

Once stores are finished in Brandon , St. John’s County, Gainesville and Daytona Beach, Florida will have 14 of these shops.

The company, which had an estimated $4 billion in sales in 2012, will stretch from Miami to Tallahassee to Orlando to Port St. Lucie, to basically all over the place.

“That’s a lot of tourist destinations,” County Commissioner Kevin Beckner said dryly. “I wonder how Disney would do as a tourist destination if there were 14 Disney Worlds in the state.”

His was the only “no” vote in February 2013 when commissioners voted 6-1 to approve a $6.5 million road-improvement package around a shopping development in Brandon that Bass Pro will anchor.

It’s unclear for now if the company will receive any public money from Sarasota, since the Bradenton Herald reported many Sarasota County business incentives are “anonymous at first, masked with code names.”

We do know what it took to get Bass Pro here, though, and it could have been worse. The initial $15 million package was reduced after public outcry.

It still angered many local small businessmen who have to compete with the well-funded newcomer they’re helping subsidize. To see that private incentive rationalized with the argument it would benefit tourism was dubious then, and laughable now.

I mean, folks in South Hillsborough might have a dilemma once both Bass stores are finished. It might be just as quick to go to Sarasota and shop, but then they’d be hurting a retailer their own tax dollars helped build.

“I warned the county commission about this,” said Tom Mahoney, owner of a long-standing marine supply company in Tampa. “If it was about tourism, you already had (Bass Pro outlets) in Fort Myers and Orlando, so you didn’t need one in Hillsborough County.

“When there were only a few of them, maybe that tourism argument made sense. But now it’s getting like Wal-Mart, it’s getting like Gander Mountain, it’s getting like Sam’s Club. I have been in Tampa 67 years now and not one tax break have I ever received to build my business.”

Tourism wasn’t the only argument to give breaks wrapped around the Bass Pro project. Commissioners were vocal about wanting to bring jobs to the county, and Bass Pro will do that for sure. I’ll leave you with a couple of points, though.

First, businesses are going to expand to places where they can make money. The Bass Pro outlet will be successful in Brandon, so that should have been enough to get it here.

More than that, I would ask leaders considering projects like this in the future to stop phony-baloney rationales. Just say you think Bass Pro will make life better here and leave it at that. Everything else is hot air.

The beach is a destination. The ballpark can be a destination. Busch Gardens is a destination.

Bass Pro is a store.

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