TRIADELPHIA – During the 2003 announcement that Cabela’s would open a store in Ohio County, state and local officials promised it would grow the region’s tax base, provide more than a thousand jobs and reinvigorate the local economy.
That store officially opened on Aug. 12, 2004. And over the past 10 years, it has lived up to all the opening day hype – and more.
The store will celebrate its 10-year anniversary on Tuesday, bringing more than 2 million visitors annually to Ohio County. That’s more than 20 million visitors to the area since 2004.
Landing Cabela’s allowed county leaders to build nearly $300 million worth of infrastructure at the development now known as The Highlands, which has led to more than 60 new businesses locating there. Ohio County Administrator Greg Stewart said the county now receives about $4.5 million annually in property taxes from The Highlands, compared to average annual collections of just $800 for the land prior to Cabela’s opening.
“It has been a very quick 10 years,” Stewart said in reflecting on Cabela’s anniversary. “We could not have found a better anchor than Cabela’s. They gave us the launching pad to get started.”
“It’s a very dramatic game-changer for the area,” added Frank O’Brien, executive director of the Wheeling-Ohio County Convention and Visitors Bureau. “Because of Cabela’s, retail has come back to Ohio County.”
O’Brien said the 2 million visitors he counts heading to Cabela’s each year come from a broad range of areas. A stop at the store at any given time shows a heavy concentration of Pennsylvania and Ohio license plates, along with those from Texas, Oklahoma and Louisiana – native states for many of the area’s pipeliners.
A Team Effort
The story of Cabela’s locating here goes back to the county commission’s purchase of 471 acres of land in the late 1990s for about $450,000 from property owners John Nicolozakes and Quinn Ford. After attempting to market the property as a Southpointe-style complex, county and state leaders put their efforts into showing the outdoors retailer – at that time, a family owned operation by brothers Jim and Dick Cabela – that Ohio County, with its central location between Pittsburgh and Columbus and strong outdoors market, would be a wise investment.
When first approached by the local group, Cabela’s had eight stores around the country, with a ninth already approved for Hamburg, Pa., near Reading. Cabela’s was building about a store a year at the time, and local and state officials gave their best pitch for the project during visits to Cabela’s headquarters in Sydney, Neb.
That pitch, led by then Gov. Bob Wise, included a series of tax incentives new to West Virginia called tax increment financing. Through such a financing tool, used in other states where Cabela’s was located at the time, future property taxes were pledged to fund infrastructure improvements. This allowed property such as that where The Highlands currently is located to be developed without requiring massive amounts of private investment.
Along with the local group, led by Stewart, county commissioners David Sims, Randy Wharton and Tim McCormick, Wise also had several state business leaders – Russ Isaacs and David Dickerson among them – working with Cabela’s executives. Sims, now a circuit judge in Ohio County, said the list of those involved is impressive.
“This has created so much opportunity for our county, and it still continues to create opportunities,” Sims said of Cabela’s. “There is no question, there were a lot of people involved in this process that many people probably don’t even know about. I wish we had written a book, beginning when we first looked at the land in the 1990s.”
A ‘Wise’ Investment
The Cabela’s deal did not come without controversy. The state put together a $60 million sales tax increment financing plan, which gained passage at the end of the 2003 session of the West Virginia Legislature when then-Delegate Gil White, with less than 15 minutes remaining in the session, ran the House’s bill to the Senate chamber for passage.
The sales tax TIF, which redirected all sales tax from Cabela’s back to the county to pay for construction of the store, was set to last for 10 years. It was paid off in four.
Along with TIF financing, the state provided a $35 million grant for Cabela’s, along with funding to build the interchange along I-70.
Many criticized the funding, noting the state essentially built Cabela’s a new store. Ten years later, Wise said the state’s money was well spent.
“My son and I were back in the Wheeling area two years ago to hunt, we stopped at Cabela’s, and I was completely amazed that there had been so much growth and development,” Wise, executive director of the Washington, D.C.-based Alliance for Excellent Education, said. “Cabela’s is a quality operation. It’s not your typical retail establishment. As the Wheeling store has shown, it’s a destination.”
Wise said bringing Cabela’s to West Virginia was the top economic development priority for his administration.
“I have two prominent items from my time as governor here in personal office. One is a picture of me signing the PROMISE Scholarship bill, and the second is a panoramic picture from inside the Wheeling Cabela’s store,” he said. “Landing Cabela’s set the stage for many other economic development opportunities in the Northern Panhandle and throughout the state.”
The deal also pushed the state beyond where it had been before in terms of economic development initiatives, Wise added.
“When we visited Cabela’s, we saw first-hand how the TIF could work to grow development in West Virginia. Some in the state resisted that, but we pushed it through the Legislature. Our best predictions (with the sales tax TIF) were that Cabela’s would be luck to pay it back in 10 years. It turned out to be paid back in four. Cabela’s return on investment far exceeded what we projected.”
To top it off, Cabela’s liked the Triadelphia location so much that the company agreed to locate its third national distribution center here – which brought another 1,100 jobs.
“When they saw the quality of our work force, our location, they came to us and said they wanted to do the distribution center, as well,” Wise said. “That was not part of the original package. It took the job numbers from 300 for the retail store to 1,400 total. What a win that turned out to be.
“Looking back now, I can say Cabela’s far exceeded what anyone projected, and it showed me that as a state, if we are willing to push the envelope, good things will happen.”
Current Gov. Earl Ray Tomblin, who served as Senate president when Cabela’s came to the state, also praised the outdoors store for 10 years in West Virginia.
“Then Senate President Tomblin was proud to support the proposal that led to Cabela’s being the anchor for a huge retail and commercial development in the Wheeling area,” said Tomblin spokesman Chris Stadelman. “It’s a great example of how public-private partnership can help the economy of an entire region.”