For now, the site in Brandon of the future Bass Pro Shops is several dozen acres of finely smoothed dirt, with bulldozers rolling about, installing the basic outlines of roads and drainage ditches. But as large as the future Bass Pro Shops will be (three times the size of a Publix, plus boat store and ponds), that retailer will only be the hub of a far grander retail and entertainment complex stretching across as much of Brandon as the Westfield shopping mall does now.
“We’re getting strong interest from a number of national brands,” said David Verardo, the developer in charge of building out the overall “Estuary” project near the intersection of Palm River and Falkenburg roads. All totalled, there could be 600,000 square feet of retail/restaurant projects — roughly the equivalent of 10 Publix stores.
Ticking off a list, he said that includes: one, maybe two, new hotels on the site, a boutique movie theater, several in-line retailers in a traditional strip-mall layout, plus a major “entertainment” establishment.
The official economic impact study done by Hillsborough County also lists a grocery store on site. Developers are keeping quiet on just what that may be, and which brands will move into the complex, but a few clues emerged from a ground-breaking ceremony on Thursday.
In attendance was Dilip Kanji, the prominent hotelier who runs the Westin on the Courtney Campbell Causeway, and pointing in his direction, Verardo said that if he had to pick a hotel, “it would be with Dilip.” Unlike a full-service Hyatt or Four Seasons, these hotels would likely be what’s known as “select service,” Verardo said, making them similar to a Courtyard Marriott or Aloft hotel.
The first project in the site to open will be the Top Golf driving range/restaurant/entertainment complex, which is already under construction. There, people can thwack away at wireless-enabled golf balls to keep score and play against their friends, or they can play at a large arcade or eat at one of two restaurants, or have cocktails on a rooftop lounge.
Building the Bass Pro will take more time to build. The incoming general manager, Ronnie Cheeks, said the store should open in late 2015, possibly in time for the holidays, which would be something, he said, because Bass Pro tends to go all out with winter parties and Santa displays.
At one point in 2012, developers and some county politicians backed a deal awarding $15 million in incentives toward the project, arguing that the sheer scale merited support partly because Bass Pro would employ several hundred people and attract millions of shoppers from across the region, thus creating an economic net plus.
That question of incentives triggered a sharp debate about whether local governments should subsidize the development with taxpayer money, particularly as existing retail shops nearby have not only operated for years, but will also find themselves soon competing directly with Bass Pro. Souring the atmosphere a bit, lawyers for Bass Pro at one point threatened to sue an existing fishing gear store in the area, claiming the local store’s logo was too similar to the one that Bass Pro would use in its yet-to-be-built store. When that move went public, Bass Pro executives quickly apologized and withdrew their threat.
Meanwhile, rival outdoor retailer Gander Mountain opened a store just west of Tampa, and while the store is a much smaller scale, officials with that company were quick to point our that they requested no incentives to open, and they received none either.
Early this year, county officials approved a deal that split the difference between the two pro- and anti-incentive positions.
The Estuary developers will first pay for about $6 million in road improvements along Falkenburg Road and into the project site. After construction is done on several parts of the project, and developers receive a “Certificate of Occupancy” to open to the public, the county will cut them a check for $6.25 million. The chief proponent and booster within the county, Commissioner Ken Hagan, said that’s an investment that will break even within three to four years, as the property begins to generate both property taxes and sales taxes.
In the meantime, retailers on site are moving forward with other changes to the area. Top Golf officials recently applied for a variance to rules in the area. The purpose: To erect a sign several times the size normally allowed in the area.