Story and Photo By Ken Krayeske • 10:30 AM EST
"Varmint rifle, youth guns,” the signs at Cabela's gun rack announced when I visited there in November 2008.
Does that mean we can shoot the kids?
As we approach the end of Governor Rell's taxpayer funded vacation, it is worthwhile to examine her legacy. Gov. Wiecker gave us the income tax, Gov. Rowland gave us UConn 2000 and campuses in downtown Waterbury and Hartford, and Gov. Rell, she gave $10 million in taxpayer money to Cabela's.
Riding in, I saw UTC "it's too expensive to do business in Connecticut so we're moving to Turkey and Poland where can abuse the labor more" fuel cells in front. This is greenwashing at its best. They say clean, but they run on natural gas, a fossil fuel which is the most hydrogen rich fuel source around. So there are few emissions, but what about mining the gas?
I read that they cost $860,000, but that Cabela’s will save $60,000 a year in electricity costs. Why do the perks of the green society go to private industry? Any city government in Connecticut would be thrilled to save $60,000 a year in electrical costs. Why do policy choices automatically, almost reflexively, go to creating incentives for business, and the public sphere?
So, suppose that the city of Hartford purchased a few of those fuel cells with state aid, and ran its electrical costs for itself, the Wadsworth, the Hartford Public Library and the MDC off of it. No, makes too much sense.
This is Governor Rell's Legacy in three parts.
I first visited in July 2008. I took a bicycle ride out to Rentschler field, and the only thing I could compare it to was the Bass Pro Shop in Fort Lauderdale, which had a pond, and the International Sportfishing Hall of Fame in front of it.
While our Cabela's is similarly gaudy, complete with auto-centric entrances, and sidewalks that seem to only exist for the employees who need to get there by bus. When I rode my bicycle up to it, I noticed immediately no bike racks. But there were canoes and power boats and gas grills. And bright lights. All at like 11 pm.
Music too. The speakers mounted above the front sidewalk played Traffic's "Many a Mile to Freedom," one of those hidden gems, deep album tracks that has not made its way to a youtube posting yet. The lyrics seem prescient.
"Call all my reindeer to graze here, call all my grain to grow," sang Stevie Winwood.
When Gov. Rell hailed the arrival of Cabela's in August 2006, she promised lots of jobs. And while Cabela's website advertised 15 job descriptions in November 2008 for an unknown number of seasonal holiday help, and a few permanent, full-time gigs, Cabela's itself faces major problems in this economy.
Currently, there are only five jobs listed for Cabela’s, only one full-time. Retail is never a jobs generator. So I am still gobsmacked at how we can be building new retail outlets in downtown Hartford on Front Street.
Cabela's pitches itself on its website as the American dream: mom and pop entrepreneurs working out of their kitchen, taking no pay for three years while they build a mail-order brand name, and grow that into a 17-store chain of outdoor retailers. Wow.
They even went international, into Canada. Where Cabela's stock once topped out at $27, bottomed out at $6 in November 2008, and it is now leveled out at $17.10.
While Cabela's doesn’t seem to be in retreat, it doesn't look great. And if it didn’t get the $10 million gift from the taxpayers of Connecticut, my bet is that this store wouldn't have happened.
And it seems like subsidies have been Cabela's growth strategy across the country, according to a 2006 story on goodjobsfirst.com.
Whether it is $18 million in subsidies from Hoffman Estates, Illinois; $50 million in sales-tax increment financing for Cabela's in Gonzales, Louisiana south of Baton Rouge or $54 in sales-tax increment financing in Reno, Nevada, Cabela's has successfully sought and won taxpayer dimes.
When I first started writing this piece in 2008, I called and called and called Cabela's headquarters in Nebraska to see if the subsidies we gave them were paying off. They never got back to me.
My guess is that the subsidies aren't helping the economy the way Gov. Rell thought. In 2006, the Allentown Morning Call sought to learn "if the $32 million subsidy package bestowed on the 247,000-square-foot Cabela's that opened in Hamburg, Pennsylvania in 2003 was paying off," according to goodjobsfirst.com.
The Morning Call "went back to the state and local agencies that bragged about the taxpayer benefits of the original deal. But the Pennsylvania Department of Economic and Community Development said it was not tracking sales tax revenue. And Tilden Township said it had no data on local property tax revenues," said goodjobsfirst.com.
So there was no hard data in Pennsylvania. It is unlikely that public officials in Connecticut have the information either. We already know that this project was not put through state representative Diana Urban's Results-Based Accountability genome.
If I called Gov. Rell's office, I am sure the press person would give a glowing review about how successful the Cabela's subsidy has proven. Would you expect her administration to say anything different?
It's easy to see where the fuel cell electricity goes when you walk into Cabela's. The 180,000 square foot store is vast, complete with a Peabody-style taxidermy museum. The concept of Cabela's is to be a tourist attraction.
Anything you want to buy, that you can think of that has to do with the enjoying the outdoors and killing, from video games about shooting to fishing poles and guns, guns, guns.
Three Latino men left Cabela's at the same time I did. As I unlocked my bicycle, they sauntered past, towards their cars, toting their new shotguns. One of them said, "If we only see some deer on the way home."
The receptionist I met said Cabela's was hiring for the season. What about after? She wasn't sure. She had been working there a few months, was thinking about college, but didn’t know what she wanted to study, and she liked Cabela's so much, that she decided to put off school.
No worries, I told her, my friend took 14 years to get his Bachelor's degree. But he got it.
I doubt that the receptionist's salary at Cabela’s would fund her college education.
Gov. Rell and the Legislature now want to enact a loan forgiveness program for public university students who graduate with degrees in green technology and who stay in Connecticut for two years. It's only four years after Cliff Thornton's Green Party campaign for governor in 2006 proposed something similar.
What if we took the $10 million from Cabela's and gave it college students?
Walking around the store, I took photos. I kept thinking I could get thrown out of the store, or get arrested. Some of the Cabela's employees gave me looks. It’s not like I didn't belong. I belonged no less than the Deadhead couple who were playing in the shooting gallery.
The woman, she was shooting, having fun firing at the targets. She wore a Humboldt state sweatshirt on. They guy, with a tightly cropped beard, wore a zipper-hoodie with Grateful Dead patches on it.
Even still, I had this innate fear of being singled out, especially when I was taking pictures of the gun racks. I can see how Cabela's wouldn’t want me to photograph their interior. But then there were elephants and zebras, and they advertise it as a tourist attraction. I was a tourist.
Part III - The ride home.
From "The Age of Aquariums," by Ginger Strand, printed in the August 2005 Harpers magazine. I don't like to quote in bulk, but this is too good not to:
"In an attempt to secure funds for Hamburg's zoological gardens in 1911, Dr. J. Vosseler argued that 'Intimacy with the living world makes people indigenous, and awakens and sustains the sense of home and the love of Nature and her creatures as the best counterbalance to the social disadvantages of modern life.'"
"Aquariums have become a sort of consolation prize for communities whose drinking water has been despoiled, whose fish have been poisoned, whose runoff has turned toxic, and whose waterfronts have been left to die."
"The Tennessee Aquarium, for instance, focuses on the Tennessee River ecosystem, despite the fact that the Tennessee River is no longer a river but a series of reservoirs linked by some thirty-five dams. In re-creating the Tennessee River, the aquarium is creating a monument to a body of water that no longer exists. This is not unusual: more and more, it's part of what aquariums do. In fact, it wouldn't be unreasonable, every time you saw a fancy new aquarium, to ask: What body of water has been destroyed here? You might then want to look at the corporate donors and ask a further question: How might they be implicated?"
What have we lost with Cabela's, aside from $10 million in tax money that could have gone to fund education?