Republican Congressman Mark Sanford is teaming up with Lowcountry Local First to oppose North Charleston's use of tax incentives to lure a big-box national retailer to town.
Bass Pro Shops, an outdoor merchandise superstore, confirmed in December that it would build a 130,000- to 150,000-square-foot store in the Ingleside Plantation development between I-26 and Palmetto Commerce Parkway. But that announcement came at a cost: the City of North Charleston promised the company that it will only have to pay half of the sales taxes it owes over the first 15 years of operation.
North Charleston isn't the only government to cut a special deal with Bass Pro Shops. According to a 2012 study by the Franklin Center for Government and Public Integrity, Bass Pro and its competitor, Cabela's, received or were promised a combined $2.2 billion in incentives from state and municipal governments over the course of 15 years. Bass Pro alone received $1.3 billion of those incentives.
In a public input meeting at the downtown branch of the Charleston County Public Library Friday afternoon, local business owners expressed outrage at the tax break, which they said unfairly favored the national chain. Scott Hammond, general manager of Haddrell's Point Tackle in West Ashley, said his company has been open since 1983 and wouldn't have a problem competing with national retailers, but he objected to the use of special incentives.
"I'm all about free enterprise, and business competition is not the problem," Hammond said. "It's just that we're taking our tax money and giving it to them to come compete against us locals. That's the biggest thing."
North Charleston's tax break is only possible because the state legislature passed a law in 2006 permitting special incentives for "extraordinary retail establishments." Sanford, who was governor at the time, vetoed the bill, but lawmakers overrode his veto.
Now, Sanford and Lowcountry Local First, an organization that advocates for local shopping and eating, are both taking a stance against the Bass Pro Shops incentive, but for slightly different reasons. LLF Executive Director Jamee Haley pointed out that profits from the shop would return to the retailer's headquarters in Missouri, that spending dollars would shift away from local businesses, and that any new jobs created would likely take employees away from local mom-and-pop stores.
Sanford, on the other hand, opposed the deal from a fiscal conservative standpoint. He said he supports the use of tax incentives to attract unique manufacturing companies like Boeing and to compete with other states, but he opposes tax incentives for retail. He said that creating incentives for a select few companies could open a Pandora's box.
"You could argue that the Walmart in Beaufort is an extraordinary retail location because there isn't a Walmart in Hampton County, and in some cases people have to go 50 miles from the upper reaches of Hampton County to go to the Walmart in Beaufort," Sanford said. "Is that extraordinary retail? I just think the definition gets watered down real fast."
Although Sanford no longer has a say in state politics, he said he hopes state lawmakers listen to the complaints coming from Charleston-area business owners.
"Good policy follows debate, and maybe by this conversation taking place, somebody at the Statehouse says, 'You know what? We ought to make sure we cap this.' We may have launched this particular one, but if we don't watch out, we're going to launch another 50 of these kinds of, quote, 'extraordinary retail incentives,' which would then water down our ability to attract the Boeings of the world ... There are only so many dollars in the pot," Sanford said.