The Atlantic Cities, August 13, 2012
When Bill Winkler opened his small archery shop, he was prepared to compete against businesses large and small – but not against a government-financed competitor. “The day Bass Pro opened here in Bossier, the number of arrows I sold dropped off by 50 percent,” says Winkler. A Bass Pro Shop opened in Bossier City in 2005 after city officials promised to give the retailer $38 million to pay for the construction of the 106,000-square-foot store in this Red River community.
Such deals are commonplace.
Both Bass Pro Shops and its archrival, Cabela’s, sell hunting and fishing gear in cathedral-like stores featuring taxidermied wildlife, gigantic fresh-water aquarium exhibits and elaborate outdoor reproductions within the stores. The stores are billed as job generators by both companies when they are fishing for development dollars. But the firms’ economic benefits are minimal and costs to taxpayers are great.
An exhaustive investigation conducted by the Franklin Center for Government and Public Integrity found that the two competing firms together have received or are promised more than $2.2 billion from American taxpayers over the past 15 years.
“Retail is not economic development. People don’t suddenly have more money to spend on hip waders because a new Bass Pro or Cabela’s comes to town,” says Greg Leroy, executive director of Good Jobs First, a non-partisan economic development watchdog group based in Washington, D.C. “All that happens is that money spent at local mom and pop retailers shifts to these big box retailers. When government gives these big box stores tax dollars, they are effectively picking who the winners and losers are going to be.”
After analyzing the development agreements, state audits, bond issues, development studies and local news accounts the Franklin Center found:
Cabela’s has received $551 million in local and state assistance during the past 15 years.
Bass Pro Shops received $1.3 billion in local and state assistance during the same period.
The federal government helped ensure liquidity for Cabela’s’ credit card division by providing $400 million in financing for the purchase of the company’s securitized debt.
Convincing politicians that the store will be a tourist mecca is a critical part of Cabela’s’ and Bass Pro’s spiel, says Stacy Mitchell, author of Big Box Swindle.
“When they go to these city councils they want to convince them that people will travel hundreds of miles just to shop at that store. They want them to believe it’s not just a store, it’s a tourist attraction,” says Mitchell. “But just look at a map – these stores are everywhere. Why would you travel to one of these stores, if there is one in your hometown?”