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Taxpayer subsidies for Bass Pro Shops?

Proponents say Bass Pro draws tourists. Opponents say it’s unfair competition! That frames an ongoing debate in Tampa, Fla. over the possible location of a Bass Pro Shops store in the area.

According to reports in the Tampa Tribune, Hillsborough County is entertaining a proposal to give $15 million worth of incentives to attract a Bass Pro retail store to the Brandon area east of Tampa. But, as one might expect, not everyone thinks the idea is a good one! Indeed, there’s a vocal group of other outdoor and boating store owners who are blasting what the county is proposing, labeling it nothing more than creating an unfair and uneven playing field, and using taxpayer money to do it.

This is not your run-of-the mill controversy. For one thing, economic development money is traditionally used as an inducement to major industries, notably manufacturing, medical or research, which can boast of bringing in large numbers of good-paying jobs. Bass Pro doesn’t meet such criteria, opponents point out.

But Tribune writer Mike Salinero reported Bass Pro has impressed the county with its claim that it actually helps other retailers. Bass Pro says its new stores bring new shoppers into an area from up to 100 miles away. When Bass Pro doesn’t have a particular product, these visitors will shop other stores.

“The county didn’t help us when, a few years ago, we fought to reopen a defunct Boaters World as a Boaters Choice store,” says Charlie Wynperle. He managed Boaters World stores for 13 years. When the chain tanked, he struggled to raise capital to rebrand and reopen the store. But he did it successfully, without any taxpayer money, he emphatically pointed out. His Boaters Choice store, however, will be only minutes from the proposed Bass Pro – thus setting the stage for cannibalizing Wynperle’s customer base.

The big carrot for the county is the promise the nearly 150,000 square-foot Bass Pro Shop will anchor a 21-acre development said to include about one-half million square feet more retail space, a hotel, office space and generate more than 1,500 temporary construction jobs. That’s a tough scenario for comparatively small retailers like Wynperle to go up against. Or is it?

Salinero uncovered a report done last year by Andrew Stecker and Kevin Connor of the Public Accounting Initiative in Buffalo, N.Y., titled, “Fishing for Taxpayer Cash.” In it, they question whether the economic impact touted by Bass Pro is more spin than fact.

Stecker and Connor cite, for example, a taxpayer-subsidized Bass Pro in Harrisburg, Penn., that’s still struggling to attract tenants to the mall it anchors, resulting in lawsuits, stalled renovations and increasing stigma. Moreover, Bass Pro initially claimed the store would hire 300 to 400 employees but the authors found only 101 had materialized three years after opening. Similarly, in Mesa, Ariz., another development anchored by a Bass Pro has been described as a "ghost town." It even spurred the state legislature there to pass a ban on retail subsidies. And, a Bass Pro-anchored mall in Cincinnati remains 65 percent empty, the report continued.

Finally, Wynperle’s concern about taxpayer-funded inequities isn’t just blowing smoke, according to Stecker and Connor. In the Mesa development, for example, the promise of drawing in new business hasn’t happened. In fact, most tenants who moved in were just local relocations, thus the promised increase in tax revenue for the community hasn’t materialized.

There are many positives to Bass Pro Shops, of course. The stores are startling with attractions like fishing lakes, seminar programs and the like. And the range of products carried is clearly beyond the capability of smaller retailers like Wynperle. So a Bass Pro Shop in any area could be considered a plus in a market.

The real question, then, is not whether a Bass Pro Shop is desirable. It is. Rather, is it right to favor it with multi-million dollar taxpayer subsidies, or should it, like nearly all other businesses, put up its own capital and compete in the market like everyone else?

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