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A Fishing Shop’s Publicly Funded Expansion

Bass Pro just reeled in three lucrative boat manufacturing businesses, possibly with help from years of publicly-funded development incentives. But do these stores deliver on their alleged benefits to local economies?

Bass Pro Group LLC went fishing for a few good small companies and landed Fishing Holdings LLC. The Arkansas-based manufacturer makes fiberglass and aluminum boats under the Ranger Boats, Stratos, and Triton brands.

Fishing Holdings was previously owned by Platinum Equity which had snapped up both Ranger boats and Stratos during a bankruptcy auction as part of a larger group of boat brands. Six months later, Platinum Equity acquired Triton. The deal for an undisclosed amount marks the firm’s exit after four years of ownership.

The move marks an important acquisition for the Springfield, Missouri-based Bass Pro, a privately held retailer that is best known for selling fishing and boating equipment as well as hunting, camping, cooking, footwear and other outdoor gear in its destination megastores.

The chain currently operates 89 stores in the U.S. and Canada and is among the largest privately held companies in the nation, according to Forbes. Sales are about $4.2 billion and the company employs approximately 19,000 people.

Bass Pro is planning to open a number of new stores including locations in Memphis, TN and Bridgeport, CT, thanks in part to touting the promise that its locations will become tourist destinations that spur additional businesses and generate revenue for the area.

A planned opening in Upstate, South Carolina has been welcomed with enthusiasm by public officials. According to a report by the Greenville News, Spartanburg County Councilman described the store’s impact thusly: “It’s going to be like dropping a meteor in a swimming pool. It’s going to knock all the water out of the pool, and it’s just going to cause us to make the pool about three times larger than it was. It’s going to be fantastic.”

The new Bass Pro Shops Outdoor World Store will come in at 120,000 square feet. The development itself will also feature Uncle Buck’s Fishbowl and Grill, a nautical-themed center that features family dining and a 12-lane bowling alley, as well as other retailers, restaurants and a hotel.

When a Bass Pro Shop comes to town, it is usually the recipient of development incentives, which may have helped finance its latest deal to acquire the boat manufacturers. A report in the Connecticut Post found that the company has been the beneficiary of “at least $500 million in public money from development incentives across the country since the 1990s.”

However, according to the Public Accountability Initiative, a nonprofit, nonpartisan research and educational organization, “Bass Pro often fails to deliver on its promises as an economic development anchor and major tourist destination — promises which were used to reel in government subsidies. Its stores successfully attract shoppers, but often do not produce sought-after economic benefits associated with major tourist destinations.”

It will take a while longer to see if their findings are borne out in Bass Pro’s newest locations, one of which won’t open until 2016. Until then, Ranger, Stratos, and Triton boats should be coming soon to a store near you.

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