by Max Brantley
Otter Creek Land Co. chief Tommy Hodges confirms a tip I heard last night:
He's finally landed Bass Pro Shops for 30 acres he's long controlled at Interstate 30 and 430, a deal he almost had done in 2004.
He said the $25 to $30 million, 120,000-square-foot store will employ 250 and be open by the 2013 holiday season. It sells hunting, fishing and camping gear, including boats, and will include a restaurant and 12-lane bowling alley.
Here's the really big news from my point of view as a long watcher of Bass Pro developments:
"It doesn't involve any money coming from anyone but them," Hodges said.
However, City Manager Bruce Moore told me that some help would be forthcoming from the city's economic development incentives fund. I don't have specifics just yet. But Hodges said this was a reference most likely to plans for some help, likely in street construction, for a second phase of development he envisions, which is mentioned below, a high-end outlet mall and other commercial developments.
UPDATE: See the jump for a map of the site plan.
Here's the Bass Pro news release. And below is a rendering of the store provided by the company:
From the news release:
“We have been hoping for a store in Little Rock for a long time and, thanks to Tommy Hodges we believe we have found the best location possible,” stated Johnny Morris Founder of Bass Pro Shops. “We are very excited to bring Bass Pro Shops to Little Rock and committed to give our long time customers an unforgettable shopping experience at our newest generation store which will be located next to a beautiful 5-acre lake.”
The Bass Pro shops vary in scope. In Memphis, a small store on the east side will be dwarfed before long by the taxpayer-financed makeover of the Pyramid into a giant new Bass Pro. What type is planned here?
"What Johnny said is that it will be the latest and greatest," Hodges said. "It will have all the bells and whistles."
Bass Pro, based in Springfield, Mo., has depended heavily around the country for taxpayer incentives to locate their giant outdoor stores, which are sold as tourist lures. But criticism has grown of the value of the incentives, particularly as the number of stores has risen and governments have experienced mixed results. Arkansans, for example, can already find a Bass Pro Outdoor World in every adjoining state. Louisiana, notably business friendly under Gov. Bobby Jindal, recently announced he'd support no more taxpayer incentives to lure retail chains.
"It's a whole different world now," Hodges acknowledged. He added, "The bottom line is they wanted to be in Little Rock. They knew this was the way to do it." Jonesboro developer Bruce Burrow tried for years to get a Bass Pro built in North Little Rock's Dark Hollow, with help from a tax increment finance district backed by Mayor Pat Hays, over objections of the School District, which would have lost tax millage growth to payment for Bass Pro infrastructure. But environmental lawyer Richard Mays of Heber Springs led an ultimately successful legal battle against the inadequacy of a Corps of Engineers study on impact of use of important wetlands for the project and the project, if not officially declared dead, was moribund.
Hodges said coming, too, is an "upscale outlet mall." He said it's under contract on the 169 other acres he controls by the Bass Pro site. But he's not ready to identify the developer. He said 800 to 900 jobs could be created by all the work, which could eventually include a hotel and restaurants, if other developments around the country are a guide. It's all to be known as the Gateway Town Center. Hodges recently added a Loves Travel Center in that area and he said it is "going gangbusters." As many as 70 truckers overnight there, Hodges said, in addition to other food, fuel and other business.
Hodges said he's counting on state Highway and Transportation Department plans for improving the problematic I-30/I-430 junction to include better access to his developments. He reiterated, however, that the Bass Pro deal is "done" and no local help will be sought. He said there's a possibility that he might seek infrastructure help for the coming outlet mall. He said the mall alone could hire 800 people at 75 shops. His site plans includes hotels, restaurants, commercial and office space.
In 2004, when Hodges almost landed Bass Pro, he gave 200 acres to the state Game and Fish Commission for a potential home for a nature center. The nature center was built on the Arkansas River in Little Rock instead. Nothing has been done on the Otter Creek acreage, in a wetland and forested area. But Hodges said Game and Fish had been waiting on future developments and said he anticipated the arrival of Bass Pro might set in motion a development of the area for hiking trails and educational uses.
Hodges said he'd made a good deal for Bass Pro on the land, though declined specifics. In 2004, he was going to give Bass Pro the land with the hope that ancillary development would profit his land company, which is reborn from a collapse during the S&L crisis years ago.
It's a remarkable closing chapter for Hodges, who formed the Otter Creek land company with other Little Rock businessmen in 1973, then lost it in the S&L collapse when primary lender FirstSouth went under about 1988. He bought the property back in 1994 and has been steadily developing it since. The Otter Creek residential subdivision is virtually built out and strip shopping and other developments have sprung up to serve it.
Hodges said he'd stayed in touch with Bass Pro after losing out on the location in 2004, but their interest had accelerated in recent months. It had become apparent there was no legal solution to the roadblock thrown up by environmental challenges to the Dark Hollow site.