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Cabela's Hasn't Fulfilled Dreams

Pennsylvania Store In Rural Isolation

September 18, 2005
By DAN UHLINGER, Courant Staff Writer

HAMBURG, Pa. -- Officials in Connecticut thought they struck gold when Cabela's announced recently that it wanted to build its first New England store in East Hartford.

Trumpeting the retailer of outdoor merchandise, they said the "destination superstore" would be a magnet for tourists and a catalyst for the $2 billion development planned at Rentschler Field, where the University of Connecticut football stadium is already located.

But if the Cabela's store here in the heart of rural Pennsylvania is an indication of success in spinoff economic development, then East Hartford officials may want to temper their enthusiasm.

The Hamburg store - Cabela's biggest in the nation - has yet to pay significant dividends for surrounding businesses since it opened two years ago, officials here said.

"Some merchants thought they'd get rich. That certainly hasn't happened," said Francis Werley, a local merchant.

Looking toward the store perched on a hill right off an interstate exit, Werley said customers travel hundreds of miles to Cabela's, the retailer of hunting, fishing, camping, boating, hiking, bird-watching and other outdoor equipment.

"People come from all over the country," he said. "It's like ants going up that hill every day."

In most cases, however, the customers get right back on I-78 after making their purchases and never travel into the borough to spread their tourist dollars, officials said.

"As far as Hamburg is concerned, I don't see that there's been a whole lot of business going from Cabela's. It has not been what the town thought it was going to be," said Cheryl Haus, secretary treasurer of Tilden Township. The store straddles the township line.

But Dan Matos, the developer for Rentschler, said East Hartford and Hamburg are worlds apart and the lack of development in Pennsylvania is not a true indication of East Hartford's potential.

"I don't want to offend the people in Hamburg, but there's one major difference between the Cabela's planned at Rentschler and the one there: The Hamburg store is all by itself in the middle of nowhere," Matos said. "Our store is in the middle of everything."

The 200,000-square-foot "outdoor experience" store, to be located on a 10-acre lake at Rentschler, would be in the center of the new $2 billion mixed-use development envisioned for the former airfield owned by United Technologies Inc.

Matos' plan calls for a development of technological research offices, hotels, medical and sports facilities, stores, educational facilities, hundreds of condominium and rental apartment units and restaurants.

Cabela's, which bills itself as the nation's largest direct marketer of outdoor merchandise, has 12 stores throughout the country and boasts of being able to attract 3 million to 4 million shoppers annually - many from more than 100 miles away - to a typical store.

As a testament to Cabela's ability to draw tourists, states and municipalities have showered more than $300 million in economic incentives to lure the company.

Fearing they would miss an opportunity for much-needed development, East Hartford Town Council members last month approved $6.7 million in tax abatements to entice Cabela's.

State officials, keen on bringing Cabela's to the 650-acre site just across the Connecticut River from the Adriaen's Landing redevelopment in Hartford, also are negotiating incentives with the company.

High Expectations

Cabela's, based in Sidney, Neb., opened its only store in the Northeast in September 2003 just outside of Hamburg, about 30 miles west of Allentown in Berks County.

The company said the 235,000-square-foot store in Tilden Township would create hundreds of jobs.

State and county officials predicted that Cabela's would trigger new economic activity for the area, located about an hour's drive from the state's depressed coal-mining region.

Anticipating about $4 million in annual state sales tax, officials approved more than $32 million in tax breaks and other incentives for Cabela's.

Tom McKeon, county director of community and economic development, said the company is making good on its promises. The store employs about 600 workers and has brought in millions in sales tax, he said.

"The store has been excellent for the area. It's already proven that," he said. "It's been a tremendous shot in the arm for state sales tax revenue. We're seeing a tremendous influx of people into the county as a result."

McKeon could not give exact sales tax figures. Repeated phone calls for comment to the Governor's Action Team for economic development, which led the project, were not returned. Officials for Cabela's also would not provide tax figures for the store.

McKeon acknowledged that Cabela's, so far, has not met the expectations of some local officials and businesses.

"It has not yet achieved its full benefits in indirect development," he said. "As far as development in the township, that has been delayed because of the sewage infrastructure."

A moratorium on new development has been in place because of the antiquated sewer infrastructure that serves the borough and township. New facilities are being built, and the moratorium is expected to be lifted next year.

The store has created some new activity in the area at ancillary food businesses and a nearby hotel. But most of the jobs at the store are relatively low-paying.


Many officials and residents in Hamburg are upset that the area has yet to experience the predicted booming growth. They also are disappointed that existing businesses have yet to see a significant increase in sales, officials said.

"At first I thought Cabela's was a good idea," said Deena Kershner, manager of Our Town Foundation, a nonprofit revitalization program for Hamburg. "We were led to believe this was going to turn the whole town around, but that hasn't happened."

Borough Manager Lynda G. Albright said some businesses have seen extra activity but nothing dramatic, probably because the store is at a highway exit, less than a quarter-mile north of I-78. Hamburg is about a mile south of I-78.

"You can't really see the town from the highway," she said. "People tend to get off the highway and then get back on after they're done shopping. They don't go into town."

Werley, whose family has operated a home-heating oil and gasoline station in the borough for 56 years, said some business people and residents had unrealistic expectations of Cabela's.

"They were disappointed when things didn't work out the way they thought they would," Werley said.

Some businesses that cater to outdoor enthusiasts have been hurt by the new competition, but for the most part, merchants have been unaffected, he said.

Cabela's also has had positive effects on the way people view the town, and the store has been a good corporate citizen, Werley said.

"Business is more self-conscious of its image. People are taking better care of their properties in some cases. That's helped us," he said. "Cabela's has also helped with local sports by being a sponsor."

Albright said economic development is a slow process and she remains optimistic about the future.

"We have not seen anything major, but there's been growth. I expect things to really blossom [at] the end of next year when the moratorium is over," she said.

Large undeveloped parcels, some owned by Cabela's, are in the vicinity, and local officials are hoping that new businesses that produce jobs and tax revenue will spring up.

Kershner is guarded in her outlook for the area.

"It's hard to say what the future will be. If there's a Wal-Mart, no, that won't help. It would just take customers away from local businesses. But if they build more touristy things, like antiques stores, that will help," she said.

Hamburg, with a population of 4,000, has a downtown area made up of a main drag, Fourth Street, which is lined with brick buildings dating from the 1800s. Many of the buildings, containing small shops, antique stores and other businesses, are run-down and in need of repair.

Most of the residents are of German ancestry, but there are also some Irish and Italians. Less than 1 percent are of Hispanic or African ancestry, according to the 2000 Census.

About two-thirds of the homes in Hamburg were valued at less than $100,000 in 2000 and the most expensive house was less than $250,000.

Unlike the site of the Hamburg store, Rentschler already has a football stadium and is next to UTC's Pratt & Whitney and the United Technologies Research Center, Matos said.

It is also within walking distance of Adriaen's Landing, where the Connecticut Convention Center is located and a science center is planned, he said.

"This area has so much more," Matos said. "It's really a different deal."

East Hartford Mayor Timothy D. Larson recently visited Hamburg and said it could not be compared with the town where he has spent his life.

"There's nothing out there. It's farmland," Larson said. "It's a beautiful countryside, but there's nothing to do except get back on the highway, unless you want to pick corn or go milk a cow."

Happy Tourists

The East Hartford Cabela's will be similar to the store in Hamburg and will be designed to replicate the feeling of the outdoors, company officials said. The store is being touted as offering an educational as well as entertainment attraction, mixing "museum-quality animal displays with colorful dioramas" and aquariums stocked with native fish, officials said.

The Hamburg store has a deli-style restaurant, featuring wild game sandwiches and tamer fare. There is also a gun library, providing collectors and aficionados the opportunity to browse through a collection of examples of gun-making.

The East Hartford store will include an indoor archery range and a "bargain cave," featuring discount prices on returned and discontinued merchandise.

During a recent visit to the Hamburg store, about half the cars on the parking lot were from out of state, some from as far away as Georgia.

A caravan of recreational vehicles from about 100 miles north of Toronto had brought eight visitors to the store.

"This is the third year we've come here to do our Christmas shopping," said Sheila Potter, a retired teacher from Kingston, Ontario. "This is the greatest store and our grandchildren love it."


Reprinted with permission of the Hartford Courant. To view other stories on this topic, search the Hartford Courant Archives at http://www.courant.com/archives.
| Last update: September 25, 2012 |
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