Charity for the Super-Rich

Here's the lowdown on one of the latest scams to put local taxpayer money into the pockets of billion-dollar corporations.

This is a tale that starts 33 years ago in a small town in Missouri and will hopefully end on May 17 when Mesa voters cast their ballots in the most contentious municipal election in years.

The Mesa electorate should drive a stake through a ridiculous plan by the Mesa City Council to funnel more than $84 million in future sales taxes to a mega-developer, a greedy anchor tenant and auto dealers proposed for the Riverview at Dobson shopping mall.

What is this, charity for the super-rich?

The May 17 ballot has three issues, all related to Riverview. If any one of the three fails, the shopping mall project and $84 million subsidy are dead.

That would be a good thing. Defeat of the project would send a powerful signal to other municipalities that taxpayers are fed up with cities diverting sales taxes to wealthy developers, big-box retailers and car dealerships.

Tax money showered on private enterprise means there will be less of it in the future to pay for desperately needed public services ranging from road construction to parks to salaries for police and firefighters.

Defeat of Riverview would strongly suggest to the Arizona Legislature that it's time to pass a law putting an end to cities engaging in sales tax rebate wars to lure retail projects to their communities. Two bills are pending this term that would limit such sales tax rebates.

Riverview is a prime example of what is wrong with this idea. It's not as if Riverview is fraught with serious problems and needs taxpayer assistance to make it a viable project. It's almost a sure thing that the shopping center will strike pay dirt.

The plan for Riverview calls for it to be built on a 250-acre cotton field at one of the most desirable commercial real estate locations in the Valley -- the intersection of the 101 and 202 freeways in west Mesa.

The site is so hot that Riverview is attracting national attention. Kimco Realty, the nation's largest publicly traded owner of neighborhood and community shopping centers, with $4.5 billion in assets, is the developer, and it certainly has the financial clout to do this project without taxpayer assistance.

But Kimco has stopped at nothing in its relentless drive to tap the public well. Kimco's scorched-earth tactics deployed on Riverview should raise public suspicion over the private versus public benefits of the development.

First, Kimco launched a ruthless campaign to crush any opposition to its project. It hired a team of lawyers and high-powered political consultants to ram the project through the Mesa council. But since the project required rezoning, a handful of small business owners successfully launched a referendum to put it on the ballot.

Then, Kimco sued the backers of the referendum, alleging their campaign slandered the developer. Next, Kimco unsuccessfully challenged the signatures on the petitions in a failed attempt to keep the referendum from going before voters.

Finally, Kimco appears to have engaged in some shady negotiations with Mesa city officials. The Arizona Attorney General's Office is investigating to determine whether the city violated the state's open-meetings law in its discussions with Kimco.

The company spent more than $1 million to first keep voters from having a say on the deal, and now is trying to convince the public that Riverview is a golden opportunity that can't be missed.

But, as I'll detail below, the only gold in this deal is going to private enterprise at a tremendous cost to taxpayers.

Even more controversial than Kimco's role in the project is the role of one of the primary anchor tenants. Besides a Super Wal-Mart, the main attraction at Riverview is expected to be a Bass Pro Shop.

That's right, a glorified sporting goods store instead of a high-end department store. The most successful malls typically are anchored by a ritzy retailer such as the Nordstrom stores at Chandler Fashion Center and Scottsdale Fashion Square.

Riverview is staking its fortune on earthworms.

Bass Pro Shop's rise to the retail elite began in the most humble setting. In 1972, a 24-year-old Missouri man named John Morris started selling rare fishing baits inside his father's liquor store.

The store was on the way to a popular fishing lake, and, before long, it became a hot spot for swapping fishing stories and the merits of Morris' newest lures over a few beers.

Morris put together a catalogue of his products, and sales started to burgeon, so much so that he opened a warehouse in Springfield, Missouri, and called it Bass Pro Shop. Then, on a European vacation in the 1980s, he stumbled across a concept that would make him a very rich man.

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John Dougherty
Contact: John Dougherty