SPRINGFIELD — When it comes time to find new locations for Bass Pro Shops, the Springfield-based company considers the number of hunting and fishing licenses sold near potential stores and the proximity to areas conducive to those activities. It looks into how many boats have been registered nearby. Then it combs its own catalog and website data to determine sales made to the area.
"We look for regions around the country that are very strong and rich in sporting and outdoors traditions," said Mike Dunham, director of real estate.
The private company is in the midst of an aggressive expansion that will see it increase its locations by more than a third in the next two-and-a-half years. Since Feb. 22, 2012, the company has announced 20 planned new stores around the country and Canada, all slated to open between this fall and 2015 — in addition to a planned Memphis location that has been in the works for years.
"Our accelerated growth is inspired by the performance of the company, and the fact that our team members are doing a great job," Dunham said.
Founded in 1972 by Johnny Morris, then a recent Drury graduate, in one of his father's Brown Derby liquor stores, the company built a strong mail-order business before moving to its current flagship location on Campbell Avenue in the 1980s. The company didn't open its second location until 1997, but from there opened three to four stores a year until 2004, increasing that to seven to nine new stores a year from 2005 to 2008.
In one decade, the company had managed to accumulate a significant national presence, but growth slowed with the recession. The company added just two stores each in 2009 and 2011 — it now has 58 total — and none in 2010 and 2012.
Dunham attributed that lull to a lack of new development projects nationwide due to the economy, which prevented and, in some cases, stifled planned stores. An announced store in Bakersfield, Calif., for example, was scrapped when financing became difficult and plans for a highway interchange to be built nearby were scrapped, Dunham said. The company also withdrew plans to open a waterfront store in downtown Buffalo.
More recently, however, Bass Pro Communications Specialist Katie Mitchell said, the company has been frequently approached by developers and cities — sometimes even farmers interested in selling their large tracts of land — about moving to a particular area.
Of the 21 planned stores, five are in Florida, two each are in Tennessee, Colorado and New Jersey and one each is in New Hampshire, New York, California, North Carolina, Georgia, Alaska, Connecticut, Arkansas and Washington. The final store, slated for Ontario, will be the company's third in Canada.
Eight of the stores, starting with one in Tallahassee, are forecast to open this year, with a company-record 10 expected to open in 2014, and three in 2015. More new store announcements are likely.
"We're still constantly looking for locations," Mitchell said.
The company's expansion plans took a turn in the spotlight this past week when Bloomberg included founder Johnny Morris on its Billionaires Index for the first time, with the magazine estimating his net worth at $2.8 billion. It is the first time that Morris has been included on an international wealth ranking index.
"Bass Pro Shops could only have happened in America — the home of the free enterprise system that rewards things like hard work, value, innovation and genuine friendly service," the billionaire reportedly said in a hand-written note sent to Bloomberg. "Being included on your list is not my favorite thing, but then again things could be worse."
The newly-announced locations have also prompted a fresh round of criticism over subsidies that lawmakers sometimes give to Bass Pro-anchored projects in an effort to attract sales tax revenue and jobs.
A 2010 report by the Buffalo-based Public Accountability Initiative estimated that the projects had received $567.5 million in taxpayer incentives up until that point, with an average of $29 million per new project.
"A review of Bass Pro-anchored projects shows that while Bass Pro itself tends to attract shoppers, it frequently fails to deliver on promises of economic benefits," the report concluded, citing vacant stores in some developments and lower than expected sales tax revenue.
Dunham said that he believes that the company is more than delivering on those promises, citing Branson Landing as one spot where a development anchored by the company has thrived. He said he disagreed with the report's estimated figures, and emphasized that the incentives typically go toward the entire development, not just Bass Pro.
"Not even close to accurate," he said of the report.
When the company builds a store on former farmland, he said, the land can go from providing thousands of dollars in property tax to millions in sales tax for local governments.
Dunham said that local incentives are just one factor that go into deciding to build a new store, saying that location is still the key element, and that the company has turned down developments with large incentive packages in the past.
"Strong incentives can sometimes bring strong risk," Dunham said.
The latest round of new store announcements have often prompted glowing remarks from leaders of the municipalities where they will be located. San Jose, Calif.'s economic development director told the Mercury-News that the store will be "a big draw." The mayor of Utica, N.Y., told the Observer-Dispatch that she was "thrilled" about a planned location there.
"When you think about what the community marketing commission has been trying to do, to get tourists into our hotels, this fits perfectly," Loveland, Colo., Mayor Cecil Gutierrez told the Reporter-Herald. "Bass Pro Shops has been doing that, and doing it extremely effectively, for years."
Bass Pro says 120 million people will visit its stores and Tracker Marine Centers this year, and that the average customer drives more than 50 miles to its locations and stays 2½ hours. The stores are often marketed to the public and city leaders as tourist destinations — the Springfield store is Missouri's most-visited tourist attraction — as much as retail centers.
The increase in the number of stores, however, prompted the Public Accountability Initiative to question whether it can still have that effect.
"Even as stores are built in close proximity, the company continues to claim that each store draws regional tourists from hundreds of miles away," the report reads.
Dunham said that the company does monitor for overly-close stores, but that it has found that all its locations — which are each developed somewhat differently, incorporating wildlife and design particular to the region — continue to draw visitors from across the country. While Florida will have 11 stores by the time the newly-announced ones open, for example, Dunham said that each can still be a large draw.
"There's so much tourism in Florida ... we still believe there's an ability to draw out-of-state customers," he said.
One of Bass Pro's primary competitors, Cabela's, is also in the midst of an expansion. The company, which has 41 stores in the United States and three in Canada, lists 14 planned new locations on its website — in some cases in markets in which Bass Pro is or plans to be located.
Dunham said that the company isn't in a rush to beat the retailer — which has similarly-grandiose store designs — to particular regions, adding that in many cases he believes the same area can support both.
"We really try to stay with our own growth plan, and we don't deviate too much from that."