Wednesday, February 20, 2013

Hillsborough County Commission approves Bass Pro deal

Posted By on Wed, Feb 20, 2013 at 12:04 PM

Ken Hagan championed the effort to woo Bass Pro to Hillsborough County
  • Ken Hagan championed the effort to woo Bass Pro to Hillsborough County
After two months of public discussions, the Hillsborough County Commission approved a $6.25 million public subsidy that's anchored to Bass Pro Shops and will improve roads around a new commercial shopping plaza in Brandon near I-75 and the Selmon Expressway.

Construction begins later this year, with Bass Pro opening in 2014. The funds will go to paying a portion of widening Falkenburg Road and extending Palm River Road.

The final vote was 6-1 with Kevin Beckner dissenting.

The approval was a personal victory for Commission Chair Ken Hagan, who led the effort to bring the project to fruition. He said the development will provide more than 1,700 construction jobs and 1,500 permanent jobs in the region.

In December, when the discussion began among board members, the commissioners didn't seem in favor of the project. Since then, the public subsidy was reduced by $2 million and the developer agreed to meet with county officials to ensure they include minority subcontractors in road construction work.

But the suspense of the outcome ended early during today's discussion when two board members who previously expressed serious reservations, Mark Sharpe and Les Miller, said they would support the plan.

"When this (discussion) began I was adamantly against it," Sharpe confessed. He said he changed his mind after a trip to Nebraska where he passed three separate Bass Pro shops whose parking lots were filled to capacity.

Commissioner Sandy Murman praised chair Ken Hagan for his presentation, which displayed a list of what other communities have given in direct subsidies to the retail giant to persuade them to build a store, in comparison to the $6.25 million Hillsborough is offering. Though some of those stores lease the area versus owning the space, which will be the case in Brandon.

Critics have maintained that even though new jobs will be created, they're not the kind that the county wants to attract. Hagan acknowledged they won't be high paying jobs, but said these type of situations don't come around that often.

Quoting reports that detailed Bass Pro's financial successes as a corporation, Beckner questioned a Bass official about why they needed funding from the county? He also wondered why Bass would walk away from the deal if they couldn't get the indirect subsidy from the county. He later said the board was setting a dangerous precedent for allowing other major corporations to get in line for a subsidy, and asked how the commissioners would decide what project is worthy and which isn't?

Hagan said Beckner's argument would be worthy if he was referring to the county giving a direct subsidy, which isn't the case.

Earlier discussions at the BOCC have been dominated by critics of the proposal, but today at the County Center there were many Bass Pro supporters in attendance.

One persistent small business owner who has consistently shown up at these meetings is Tom Mahoney, owner of the marine hardware business T.A. Mahoney. He called the proposal a "huge waste of taxpayer money." He contended that Bass Pro would not be putting new tax revenues into the county, and the project is at the expense of business people like himself.

"Redistribution of tax revenue is not new tax revenue," he said.

Former Tampa City Councilman Rudy Fernandez said he was part of a group of council members some twenty years ago who resisted approving taxpayer funds to build a hotel to adjoin the Tampa Convention Center. Ultimately Marriott came in and built a hotel on their own dime, he said, and all four council members who resisted that tax were given the Hillsborough Moral Courage award. He called today's vote "a really bad precedent."

But other members of the local business community were all for the deal. Local businessman Carl Lindell said approving the project would improve the quality of life in the county, while Bob Morrison from the Hillsborugh County Hotel & Motel Association said it would be a "game-changer" for Eastern Hillsborough County.

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