It will be easy for Hillsborough County commissioners to vote no Wednesday when they are scheduled to decide the fate of a controversial development deal that would bring Bass Pro Shops here.
The issue has been framed as a public giveaway to a mammoth corporation that will smother existing small businesses. Activists have launched a petition drive to halt the project. It's become a cause célèbre.
But commissioners would be short-sighted to take the populist stance.
The 150,000-square-foot Bass Pro proposed for the Brandon development is a destination retail facility that would attract outdoor enthusiasts from miles around.
The county is being asked to reimburse the developer $6.25 million for work it would do to improve roads — widening Faulkenburg Road and extending Palm River Road — that would serve The Estuary development project that is to include Bass Pro.
Opponents claim this is a misuse of tax dollars, but such an arrangement is hardly novel. Last June the county approved $3 million for Big Bend Road work to help a Riverview retail project that did not have an anchor tenant. In the 1990s, Hillsborough provided a developer nearly $30 million for road improvements around Citrus Park Mall.
The road work now in question is the county's responsibility. The proposal would allow the transportation fixes to be completed by the development's opening.
Imagine that — the county would address a traffic problem before it materialized. Commissioners should see this is what smart planning is all about.
Ray Chiaramonte, director of the Planning Commission, recently pointed out to the commission that the Bass Pro project is consistent with the county's growth plan.
Bass Pro, it's true, has been aggressive in extracting incentives from communities where it builds. But this request comes from the developer of the entire project, which also will include a hotel, offices, entertainment venues, and an additional 240,000 square feet of retail.
Commissioner should do the math. The 153-acre tract now generates less than $800 in county property taxes a year. The development is projected to increase county tax revenues to nearly $3 million a year. The county should recoup its investment in four years.
According to the county's economic analysis, the entire development is expected to provide more than 1,700 construction jobs with a $65 million payroll and 1,500 permanent jobs with a $36 million annual payroll. That would be a robust return on investment.
It is hardly unusual for the county to aid major ventures that are likely to significantly boost the economy. The county has provided millions in direct incentives to speculative projects, including $28 million to the M2Gen cancer research facility, developed by Moffitt Cancer Center and Merck, and $6 million to Draper Laboratory, which researches microscopic technologies.
And in this case, commissioners are not being asked to give direct incentives but to fund road work.
It is understandable local shops worry about the county aiding what they view as competition. But this is not some routine big-box retail project. Bass Pro Shops are essentially tourist attractions. The store would cause at least some Hillsborough visitors to stay here an extra day, an important benefit in a county struggling to build its tourism trade. It would attract shoppers from surrounding counties.
Mayor Walter Duke of Dania Beach wrote to Hillsborough commissioners on behalf of the project. He said, in addition to creating 500 jobs: " … Bass Pro Shops' Dania Beach location also has helped attract new and return visitors to our area. More than 1.5 million people annually visit Bass Pro Shops in Dania Beach. As people go to this store, they are also introduced to the other small businesses and destinations surrounding this location. It is clear that Bass Pro Shops helps cater to our visitors and has acted as a gateway for increased traffic to the entire area."
Hillsborough commissioners on Wednesday can dismiss the numbers, play to the crowd and rail against big corporations. Or they can make the cool-headed calculations that reveal this is a good deal for Hillsborough's economy and taxpayers.