Advocates for the 150,000-square-foot outdoors shop say it will generate 1,700 construction jobs and 1,500 permanent jobs at the store and related operations. But the Republican-dominated board had an inner conflict — creating incentives to bring new jobs to the region vs. the impression that they were favoring corporations over local small businesses, who aren't getting similar breaks.
The plan has been promoted for nearly two years by County Chairman Ken Hagan, who had an edge to his voice when he introduced it to the board Wednesday afternoon. Taking exception to those who say the plan is contradictory to the BOCC's goal to bring in higher income jobs from the hi-tech and bio-tech industries, he said, "Let's be intellectually honest. At times bio-tech has not reached its potential."
Hagen's colleagues, perhaps trying to soften the blow, praised him effusively for the passion of his advocacy before laying the boom that they could not support the project, at least not now.
Some commissioners were more conflicted in their feelings than others. Al Higginbotham said he was a big fan of Bass Pro Shops, and that his house has the same design of a Bass franchise, "because of all the dead animals on the walls." But he said on the campaign trail in the past year, he frequently heard that the government doesn't do enough for small business people. He appeared reluctant to show favoritism to an out of town corporation over local residents trying to make it in the still-struggling Hillsborough County region.
No doubt he was thinking of members from the public who are critical of the plan like Debra and Jeffrey Boje, the founders of Brandon Crossroads Bowl. They're steamed that part of the plan for Bass Pro includes a bowling center, which would put them in direct competition.
"This area is not able to support additional bowling competition," Debra Boje complained to the board. She said that when the Boje's built an additional bowling facility in Apollo Beach, they had to personally fund the infrastructure, and their request for a traffic signal at Big Bend and Lincoln roads was rejected.
"This is wrong," she continued. "This is not the proper use of public funds."
Thomas Mahoney owns a marina and service center off Adamo Drive in Tampa. He said his business has been struggling for the past five years due to the recession, and "we don't have any incentives," referring to the impact fees and road improvement costs he's had to dole out like any other business.
Herbert Belcher from Seffner called the proposed plan "a fiasco," and said he was weary of the BOCC taking his taxpayer funds to reward large out of town businesses.
Kent Bailey from the Sierra Club said that Hillsborough should support local businesses, not national chains. He told the commissioners they should Google Bass Pro Shops, where they'd find they have a history of over-promising when it comes to the number of jobs that they'll bring to the community.
Not everyone was against the deal, however. Frank Ripa own a construction company in Hillsborough County. He said that bringing in Bass would be a great opportunity for the county.
"We are in desperate need of jobs," he said.
Commissioner Victor Crist was the only board member not conflicted: he said he was in complete support of creating a new road, elaborating that he and his wife take regular trips to Brandon to a Buy Buy Baby store there.
"I'm sick of driving 45 minutes to East County," he lamented.
Although the board punted the issue until February, it remains questionable whether the proposal will pass at that point. Commissioner Kevin Beckner asked if they go ahead and approve the plan for Bass Pro Shops, what's the criteria for other businesses coming before them in the future.
"What is the fairness and equity?" he asked. "You heard from other small business owners. They had to pay for their own roads. That's part of the discussion that we need to have." He said he hopes to get recommendations from county staff to explore how to set such guidelines or policies in the future.