INDEPENDENCE, Mo. - A major retail development in Independence has already left taxpayers on the hook for millions of dollars -- and it could for years to come. An online report says one specific store is to blame for the problem.
Jason White served on the Independence City Council from 2002 to 2006 and supported the development proposal for the Falls shopping center when it was presented in 2003. The centerpiece of the project was a Bass Pro Shop.
"We had a bunch of economic development reports from outside consultants that all indicated that if you build it they will come," White said. "The community was excited about having Bass Pro come here."
The city built roads and a pond, and even reimbursed Bass Pro Shops $25 million for its building. The retailer opened in 2008 and the economy soon took a dive. So far, only three other businesses have opened in the development.
"What happened between 2003 and when it actually opened in 2008 are very different," Independence city manager Robert Heacock explained.
Now, the Falls has become a financial burden for Independence taxpayers, who have been keeping it from defaulting since March 2011.
So far, residents have spent nearly $8 million to keep the Falls afloat, and Heacock expects taxpayers to spend another $4.8 million this fiscal year.
The investigative website watchdog.org recently published a report claiming Bass Pro Shops across the county have left cities in a similar situation. The report said the retailer over-promised economic benefits to cities, reaping $1.3 billion in incentives in the process.
Bass Pro Shops spokesman Larry Whitely said the report is "flagged with factual errors." He said Bass Pro Shops are responsible tenants and that it is developments, like the Falls, that are to blame for any economic failures or difficulties.
Heacock said Independence taxpayers are on the hook for another 15 years if the Falls fails to become a success. However, he has hope.
"It's possible that you could see some development and turn that around," Heacock said.
At a time when the city's budget is tight, Heacock said the Falls could actually turn into a financial asset. He said the city is in talks with numerous businesses to make that happen.
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