Charity for the Super-Rich

Mesa voters should deep-six the city's plan to funnel $84 million to greedy corporations

Next thing you know, the Bass Pro Shop in Springfield somehow becomes the Show Me State's number-one tourist attraction.

The huge store full of lures, guns, duck whistles, waders, bows, ammo, boats, waterfalls and dead animals on the wall is supposedly an even bigger draw than the Gateway Arch in St. Louis.

Morris started building Bass Pro Shops around the country, and now has 27 stores along with a lucrative mail-order business. Revenue in the privately held company topped $1.6 billion last year.

The photo that got the ASU State Press in the right kind of trouble. See second item.
courtesy of the State Press Magazine
The photo that got the ASU State Press in the right kind of trouble. See second item.

The stores' extravagant layouts attract customers who are willing to travel long distances and spend hours dropping big bucks on items that can be purchased for far less at discount stores.

Morris is the classic rags-to-riches story.

But here's the twist.

Bass Pro Shops aren't cheap to build or operate. Yet their present ability to attract customers from afar gives them a powerful political card the company loves to play.

The game goes like this: Bass Pro execs argue that since folks come from miles away to shop at their stores, the entire community benefits. Therefore, Bass Pro won't come to your town unless it receives substantial "incentives" to set up shop. Politicians, eager to deliver an icon project to distinguish their term in office, are more than willing to spend your tax money for what they call an "inducement" to land a Bass Pro.

Bass Pro swept into the Valley about a year ago to test the waters -- the company wanted to see if any city would, um, take the bait. Mesa, desperate for some sort of economic boost to its flagging economy, eagerly snapped at Bass Pro's hook.

Bass Pro wanted a bundle to set up shop at Riverview, a whopping $30 million. Kimco agreed to front Bass Pro the bucks. But Kimco insisted that the city reimburse Kimco for the $30 million, plus 7 percent interest. The interest alone could cost Mesa an additional $25 million.

What this means to Mesa taxpayers is that up to $55 million in future sales taxes generated at Riverview -- which would have gone into the city's general fund -- will now go toward Kimco's and Bass Pro's bottom line.

It gets worse.

Mesa also agreed to allow automobile dealerships that locate at Riverview to keep a portion of the sales taxes they pay. The total cost of Mesa's sales tax rebates to private businesses at the mall is projected to exceed $84 million.

The Bass Pro subsidy is the deal buster, says Mesa City Councilman Tom Rawles.

Rawles says it will take 68 years for Bass Pro to generate the same amount of city sales tax revenue that it's costing taxpayers to bring the retailer to Riverview. The shopping mall could be built without the massive subsidy to Bass Pro, Rawles declares, and generate far more tax revenue for the city's general fund.

But, Rawles says, four of his fellow council members want a "project with more style, more panache." They want the whistles and bells that come with a Bass Pro.

"The biggest flaw in this whole project is that the city created the need for the subsidy by requiring the presence of Bass Pro Shop," Rawles says.

Rawles has a long history of fighting corporations trying to raid public coffers. As a member of the Maricopa County Board of Supervisors in the early 1990s, he cast the only dissenting vote against the quarter-cent sales tax used to raise $238 million to pay for construction of Bank One Ballpark.

But unlike the BOB deal where taxpayers never had the opportunity to cast ballots, the Riverview project must gain voter approval. And voter interest in the project is running very high in Mesa -- already more than 25,000 early ballots have been requested.

It's not just the outlandish giveaway of taxpayer funds that troubles me in this deal.

It's also Bass Pro's cocky attitude.

At the same time that Bass Pro is demanding $30 million in "incentives" from taxpayers, the company refuses to provide even a glimpse of its financial records.

Bass Pro is growing very rapidly and plans to open eight new stores this year. The company's also in a pitched battle with publicly owned Cabela's Inc. in a nationwide competition to build glitzy sporting goods showrooms.

Common sense tells me that Bass Pro could be up to its gills in debt to finance its ambitious expansion.

There are myriad reasons to vote against the Riverview plan, but voters should never hand over $30 million in public funds to a company that could be hiding something.

It would be a dumb move.

A round of high-fives to the editorial staff of Arizona State University's independent campus newspaper, the State Press, for winning the prestigious 2005 Payne Award for Ethics in Journalism from the University of Oregon.

It's a fitting tribute to staff members who deftly deflected heavy-handed threats last October by ASU President Michael Crow to kick the publication off campus in retaliation for publishing a photo of a woman's breast with a pierced nipple.

Crow attacked the paper after receiving a complaint from the university's largest private donor, homebuilder Ira Fulton, who has given ASU more than $58 million in recent years.

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