When officials announced that Bass Pro Shops had backed out of a deal to build a store in Columbia County, the initial reaction from most was disappointment – the county had let a big fish get away.
Looking at the deal in retrospect, it appears that county taxpayers are the ones that are off the hook.
When announced in July, the deal sounded like a triumph for county officials and McKnight Properties, who had collaborated for about eight months to bring Bass Pro to the contract table.
The deal seemed simple: Bass Pro would buy eight acres from McKnight and donate six of those acres to the county, which would build and maintain a public parking lot that the store could use. That appeared to be a bargain, considering that Bass Pro is accustomed to having communities pony up millions in hand-outs and tax incentives to land one of their precious hunting and fishing “destinations.”
Those close to the negotiations say Bass Pro seemed genuinely eager to make a deal. On the day of the announcement, the company pulled one of their executives off of his family vacation to take part in the press conference.
That was a day before its rival, Cabela’s Inc., made a similar announcement about its plans for a store in Augusta. After that, Bass Pro’s ardor for the Augusta market cooled considerably. No plans were filed and the company didn’t bother to send a “coming soon” sign to be posted at the site.
Officials started to smell something rotten. At the eleventh hour of the contract’s “due diligence,” Bass Pro made it known that the terms it had agreed to no longer worked.
The company said it needed more from developers and taxpayers, including the construction of the store – about a $10 million sweetener – to stick with its agreement. That was a deal-breaker.
Business is business, and Bass Pro certainly has the right to negotiate for the best possible terms it can get, but this time they went fishing in the wrong pond. Commission Chairman Ron Cross was right to walk away from that deal and right for calling Bass Pro on their shifty negotiating tactics.
It is lucky for us that county officials didn’t take the bait.