A proposal to spend $8 million in tax money to bring a Bass Pro Shops to Hillsborough County is nothing more than a stripped-down version of a bad idea that collapsed earlier this year. It is one thing to make a strategic public investment in an emerging industry to reshape an area's economic base; it is quite another to hand millions in tax dollars to a retail operation that is of marginal benefit to the economy and under terms that hurt competition, increase the public costs of suburban sprawl and establish a new model for tax-funded corporate welfare. The County Commission should reject the proposal when it comes up Wednesday.
Commission Chairman Ken Hagan is taking another run at attracting the sporting goods chain by proposing that the county spend $8.25 million on road improvements to bring a Bass Pro to the Brandon area, west of Interstate 75 and north of the Lee Roy Selmon Expressway. The big difference between this offer and an earlier $15 million package is that the county is no longer being asked to pay cash to Bass Pro in addition to the road project.
But paying less for the same dubious deal is hardly a bargain. The hype about the customer experience at Bass Pro's megashops cannot mask over that these are not the high-tech or high-income jobs that significantly improve the area's employment picture. The road work would accommodate traffic going in and out of Bass Pro and not serve a larger public purpose. Opening up new land for commercial development in areas unprepared for it is not smart planning or smart investment. And why is the public learning the details of a multimillion deal just before Wednesday's meeting?
Does any commissioner beyond the one championing it think this is a good idea? These are not the jobs Commissioner Mark Sharpe keeps talking about. This is not an example of smart planning that Commissioners Kevin Beckner and Victor Crist have promoted, and it is not a conservative approach toward spending pushed by Commissioners Al Higginbotham and Sandy Murman.
The models showing that the county would make money assume the property will be built out to include a hotel, shops, offices and restaurants — even though that buildout is not a condition for obtaining the county's money. So much for the concept of shared risk.
Bass Pro clearly sees promise in this market, and it should decide whether to invest and compete. Commissioners should be wary about setting the bar so low that almost any retail operation could argue for public subsidies. If the county has $8.25 million lying around for road work or a jobs program, then the public should have a say in how to spend that money, whether for roads that residents would actually use or for more targeted economic development efforts.