Bass Pro Shops made a Missourian a billionaire and left two cities hanging

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Johnny Morris is one of Missouris few billionaires
  • Johnny Morris is one of Missouri's few billionaires

It turns out that Missouri has another billionaire: Bass Pro Shops founder Johnny Morris.

Bloomberg News on June 3 dispatched a rare profile of Morris, a 65-year-old who is not keen on media attention.

In fact, Morris wasn't keen on finding his way onto Bloomberg'Äôs list of billionaires, with his estimated net worth of $2.8 billion.

"Being included on your list is not my favorite thing," Morris reportedly told Bloomberg in a handwritten letter. "But then again, things could be worse."

Things have, in fact, been good for the outdoor-gear retailer, which got its start in Springfield, Missouri, more than 40 years ago. That original location has since blossomed to 77, drawing a company-reported 116 million visitors a year. That's good enough for Moody's to estimate $2.6 billion in annual sales for Bass Pro Shops.

Morris, in his note to Bloomberg, credits Bass Pro Shops'Äô lucrative earnings to an old American value: the free-enterprise system.

But some of the chain's success, and part of the reason that Morris is a billionaire, is due to a newer American value: large taxpayer subsidies doled out by municipalities eager for name-brand development.

The Public Accountability Initiative, a nonprofit research group in Buffalo, New York, found in a 2010 report that, to that date, Bass Pro-anchored developments had been awarded more than $500 million in taxpayer subsidies.

The elected officials who reward such subsidies almost always tout them as a means to promote greater economic activity. But the Public Accountability Initiative's report indicates that such dreams don't always come true. One store detailed in the report was supposed to bring in $5.7 million in sales-tax revenue annually but scraped together just $1.7 million over four years.

A similar story has played out with the two Bass Pro developments in the Kansas City area. Olathe and Independence each opened a Bass Pro in 2007, to much fanfare by government officials in both cities.

The Kansas store, on 119th Street near Interstate 35, was built with the help of tax-increment financing, a tool not often used by the Johnson County suburb. In that case, bonds were sold in order to raise quick cash to build the project; the investors who bought the bonds were supposed to be repaid by the sales taxes generated by the Bass Pro development, as well as by increases in property taxes.

But that revenue didn't pour in as it was supposed to, and those bonds went into default in 2011.
Olathe's city leaders were wise enough to have avoided guaranteeing those bonds. Doing so would have forced the city to pay bondholders the difference between the money investors were told to expect and the slim revenues actually generated by the project. The default won't hurt taxpayers directly, other than the loss of revenues redirected by the project's TIF. But investors may think twice the next time Olathe comes calling with a bond issuance for a retail project.

Independence leaders were not so prescient.

The Bass Pro project there was guaranteed by the city, and it has not fared as well as projected.
A memo in Independence's current budget says the city will pay bondholders up to $4.6 million this year from its general fund. For context, that amount is more than half of the $7.4 million the city received the 2012-13 fiscal year in property-tax revenues.

This isn't the first year that Independence has had to dip into its budget to find money for Bass Pro investors.
The year before, it was a $3.5 million price tag to keep the bonds afloat.

So while Morris is certainly entitled to credit cliches like hard work as a means to his fortune, let's not forget the assistance from the public trust.

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