Small-business owners and a citizen activist are scrambling to derail a $6.25 million government incentive package designed to lure sporting goods megastore Bass Pro Shops to Hillsborough County.
Activist George Niemann has been distributing petitions for two weeks asking county commissioners to vote no on the taxpayer subsidy for road improvements around a proposed commercial complex called The Estuary in Brandon. The retail and hotel complex would be anchored by a 145,000-square-foot Bass Pro Shops store.
Niemann also paid to set up a "Say No to Bass Pro" hotline where opponents of the deal can leave messages that are automatically sent to county commissioners as audio files.
"I got involved because I just don't like seeing the little guy getting stepped on," said Niemann, a member of United Citizens Action Network, a nonprofit watchdog group. "When I see the small-business owner get disadvantaged and the county is behind it, I have to speak out."
Last week, Niemann joined forces with Bill Place, owner of two Ace Golf Inc. driving ranges in Brandon and Riverview. Place put Niemann's petition online and sent it to the company's 2,500-member customer database. The online petition had 39 signatures as of Monday afternoon and another 78 people signed petitions at the two driving ranges.
Bass Pro Shops is famous for providing customers with the ultimate sporting experience, including fishing ponds with live fish, bowling alleys and shooting ranges.
Plans for The Estuary include a TopGolf entertainment complex, which features driving ranges that Place said will compete with his business in Brandon.
Place and his wife, Su Lee, also own three golf courses, including Pebble Creek in Tampa.
But he worries that many restaurants and retail outlets will not be able to compete with the newer businesses in The Estuary, which will benefit from Bass Pro's drawing power.
When the older businesses close, Place said, it will cancel out the positive economic effects Bass Pro officials say they bring to a community. "Fortunately, I have a lot more staying power," he said, because of the golf courses. "I just feel for the other businesses. I think there is going to be a huge impact when you talk about all the restaurants and retail."
Bass Pro Shops representatives did not respond to requests for comment Monday. But in past interviews, they have maintained that a new Bass Pro store helps existing local retail outlets by expanding the retail pie.
Speaking to county commissioners at their Dec. 5 meeting, a Bass Pro Shops manager from South Florida gave examples of how he often refers customers to independently owned businesses in the area.
Some longstanding local business owners disagree.
Tom Mahoney, owner of T.A. Mahoney marine services and hardware store, said Bass officials told him not to worry because the new store would increase Mahoney's business. He didn't buy it.
"I told them I'm not so opposed to you coming if you pay your way in; then it's free enterprise," Mahoney said. "But to sit here and want the county commission to give you money for your development just doesn't sit well."
Also opposing the Bass Pro deal is Ty Crozier, who manages Arrowhead Archery Shop at U.S. 92 and Williams Road.
Crozier said he doesn't fear competition from Bass Pro, but he objects to a government subsidy he feels gives the larger store an unfair competitive advantage. "If putting them in there is going speed up the need for those roads, I think they should pay for it," he said. "They're more than capable of doing it."
The small businesses opposing Bass Pro Shops say they know they are fighting an uphill battle.
David Verardo, developer of the Estuary, recently hired public relations expert Beth Leytham to make the case for the development to local businesses and economic development organizations.
The investment paid off Friday when the Brandon Area Chamber of Commerce board of directors voted to recommend that the county commission approve the $6.25 million for road improvements around The Estuary. The commission will vote on the cost-sharing arrangement Feb. 20.
Darren Denington, chairman of the Brandon chamber board, said a number of small-business people were in the room when the vote was taken.
"Being a small-business owner myself, I certainly understand that competition drives a lot" of the opposition to the proposed subsidy, Denington said.
"But looking out for the commerce of the larger area was the big picture, and everybody was in full agreement it was a positive project," Denington said.