There were signs that Bass Pro Shops was going to back out of plans to build a store in Columbia County before the company made it official Friday.
The company never applied for any permits needed to begin construction on the eight-acre site where the 50,000-square-foot store was slated to be located. Bass Pro announced at a July 24 press conference that the store would open by spring 2015.
“When they didn’t send us the sign and all that stuff to put up in the first 10 days, we sort of knew something was going on,” said project developer and property owner Mason McKnight III.
Late last week, county officials found out by phone that Bass Pro Shops was nixing plans to build the store on Mason McKnight Jr. Parkway, just off the Interstate 20 and Flowing Wells Road intersection.
The sporting goods chain said there were concerns that the Augusta market couldn’t handle both an outpost store and one under construction by competitor Cabela’s Inc., in the Village at Riverwatch development, according to Columbia County Commission Chairman Ron Cross.
“Bass Pro Shops is afraid of Cabela’s and won’t be coming to Columbia County,” Cross said Tuesday.
In a statement Wednesday, however, the company denied it was concerned about competition.
“Frankly, we face competition in most markets, but we continue to thrive in spite of it because of our exceptional employees and the outstanding products and services we provide,” wrote Tammy Sapp, director of communications for Bass Pro Shops.
According to Sapp, the statement was issued “to respond to and provide clarification in regard to some grossly inaccurate statements that have been made in the press.”
Instead, the statement cited Bass Pro Shops’ concerns about sharing a parking lot, which the county planned to install and maintain as a public lot. It would also have been used in a park-and-ride program for I-20 motorists, Columbia County Administrator Scott Johnson said.
“…In the process of our negotiations for the site, there were several instances where there was a lack of disclosure, the least of which involved the development of a park-and-ride program. We were led to believe this would be a parking lot for Bass Pro Shops’ customers,” the statement said.
It suggested that customers continue to buy from Bass Pro Shops’ catalogs, Web site or its other stores “in the region.”
Columbia County Development Authority Director Robbie Bennett said the company was almost at the end of its 90-day due diligence phase before notifying the county on the decision to back out of the development. The county offered Bass Pro Shops several incentives that included installation and maintenance of a public parking lot to be used by I-20 motorists as a park-and-ride program. Since the project was never developed, the county didn’t lose out on any funding set aside for those incentives, Bennett said.
“The way I look at it is you win some, you lose some,” he said. “We’ll keep moving forward.”
McKnight, however, invested about $12,000 in legal fees and a “line of sight” study to ensure that developers wouldn’t build anything higher than the Bass Pro Shops sign. The costs came within the due diligence period so McKnight said he won’t be able to recoup that money.
“If they just told us they weren’t coming, we wouldn’t have done it,” he said. “We’re not in the business to lose money.”
The addition of the store was expected to greatly boost sales tax revenue in Columbia County as well as create 200-plus jobs.
Bass Pro Shops backed out of a similar deal in 2011. The company announced in 2008 that it would erect a 100,000-square-foot store in Richmond County, off Riverwatch Parkway and I-20, but pulled out because of the economy.
Instead of a Bass Pro Shops store, that area will get a 42,000-square-foot Cabela’s as was announced on July 25.
Some in Augusta were sad to hear that Bass Pro had backed out. Richmond County Mayor Pro-Tem Corey Johnson said he was disappointed but not surprised to hear what happened.
“For the most part it was one of those things that I kind of felt in the beginning ‘I’ll believe it when I see it’ because we were told the same thing as Columbia County,” he said.
Johnson said a large retailer locating in Evans would have had a positive economic impact on Richmond and the surrounding counties, as well. But with Cabela’s locating in Augusta, the region will still reap some benefits.
“It’s a good opportunity and a good day for Augusta and the region,” Johnson said about Cabela’s. “It’s not a competition. Some people look at it that way, but me personally, I’m about bringing the counties together.”
As for McKnight’s bare 52-acre development where the outpost store was once slated, the developer said he’s confident that his company will announce future tenants before year’s end.
“Right now, we’re just sort of trying to put everything back together,” he said. “We’re still talking to some people. I think some people a lot more reliable than Bass Pro Shops.”
McKnight, however, was wary about disclosing further information on potential companies to locate on his site.
“I just don’t want to give the people around here false hope again,” McKnight said. “It’s just disappointing.”
Messages left for Bass Pro Shops representatives were not returned Tuesday or Wednesday.