Palm Bay’s New National Destination
It was an inauspicious beginning, but small beginnings are what American entrepreneurialism is all about. John L. Morris, owner of the privately held Bass Pro Shops estimated to be worth $4 billion and employing over 18,000 nationwide, got started with a fishing section in the back of the Brown Derby liquor store owned by his father, in Springfield, Mo. Being on the road to Table Rock Lake and Branson, Mo., his business of selling homemade bait and worms was successful enough for Bass Pro Shops to be incorporated in 1971.
As the demand for his products soared, Morris built the world’s largest mail order sporting goods store, followed by a wholesale entity that served more than 7,000 independently owned hunting and fishing stores worldwide. In 1995, Bass Pro Shops Sportsman’s Warehouse opened in Atlanta, its first retail store outside the state of Missouri. Today, there are over 70 retail locations (with others being planned) around the country, five already in Florida, with one of the most recent opening in Palm Bay. Florida is a logical spot when you consider the number of people who enjoy outdoor sports in our region and the over 1.2 million out-of-state visitors who come to Florida for the hunting and fishing opportunities each year.
The location is strategic regionally, with visibility from I-95 and, according to store manager James C. King, Bass Pro routinely attracts customers within a 70-plus mile radius. But of equal importance, it is also located just a few miles north of Stick Marsh, which is for bass fishermen what the Augusta National or Pebble Beach is to golfers. In fact, it was a fishing destination that Morris himself frequented with his son. When the grand opening was held in December 2013, thousands turned a normally sedate event into what seemed like a rock concert. In that first month, over 150,000 customers visited the retail outlet.
Overnight Success, Years in the Making
For Palm Bay Mayor William Capote and other civic leaders, both public and private, making Palm Bay a destination for ecotourism has been a goal they have worked on for years. But the key was the unforeseen consequence of building huge holding ponds to catch storm water run-off from the farms and ranches in the southern end of Brevard County, which drain into the St. Johns River.
Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission Biologist Dustin Everitt explained that the St. Johns Water Management District built levies enclosing approximately 6,700 acres back in 1987 (3,000 in Stick Marsh and 3,700 in the Farm 13 Reservoir). But because they simply flooded the acreage and didn’t clear the land, the foliage that was left produced what Everitt described as “New Reservoir Syndrome.” For the uninitiated, this existing topography and decaying organic matter result in a breeding ground for bass and other freshwater game fish. For the first couple of years, it was closed to fishing, but as word spread of anglers catching countless trophy-size fish, the dam of fishermen (not levies) simply burst.
Its success as a filtering tool for the St. Johns River, as well as being a recreational bonanza, has spurred the creation of additional marshlands which will eventually create over 25,000 acres available for freshwater fishing. As Everitt said, “It is good recreationally; it is good environmentally; and it is good economically.” Many of these new areas will have the look and feel of natural lakes and rivers, while Everitt and his colleagues continue to work to sustain the ecosystem of the existing reservoirs as they age. These have produced ideal habitats not only for fish, but also for waterfowl and alligators.
A Vision for the Future
Capote credits the forward-thinking leadership in the city and cites Edyie McCall, Palm Bay’s business development administrator, as being one of the key drivers in helping Bass Pro arrive at its decision. “Because this was a retail operation, there were no tax incentives being offered; we simply were proactive in welcoming them and doing all we could to accommodate their plans,” Capote said.
“Every area has an identity and I told Edyie to do whatever we need to do to get them here, because this will be part of the emerging identity of Palm Bay, as we move toward the future,” Capote continued. “As these areas are completed, we expect to see a type of ecotourism resort being built to accommodate the families that come to Palm Bay to not only enjoy the world-class fishing, but hunting, birding and wildlife observation.
“I like to refer to Palm Bay as ‘the second largest city in Central Florida’, in terms of population next to Orlando and the largest in terms of land mass; that means we have a lot of potential.” For Capote, that means other ambitious projects, like a mixed-use riverfront development on the city’s east side, around the waterways that give the city its name.
The Bass Pro Experience
For those who haven’t been in a Bass Pro Shop, it is more like a museum or monument to outdoor recreation than a retail outlet. King, who had a background as a manager with Lowe’s before moving to Bass Pro Shops, was attracted to the culture of the company partly because of the emphasis on finding, training and taking care of their employees, so customers have the optimum shopping experience. “We hire people who have a passion for hunting and fishing, so their job is talking to others about what they love.
“Bass Pro is a destination; we offer a constant array of hunting and fishing classes. Before the building is designed, we have a team that photographs the area and these become the murals that you see painted around the store. All are hand painted and every store is unique.
“I came down last May and had 1,100 applicants for 12 management positions. We only had one other manager brought in from the outside, and the rest were hired locally. We then did a job fair and over 3,000 applied to fill a little over 200 additional positions. That enables us to hire people who have the kind of attitude and enthusiasm we have for this business.
“We came here not only because our market surveys demonstrated there was a large customer base, but also because of the enthusiasm in this community for what the area can and will become.”