Where was the Killeen EDC in all of this?
That’s what many area residents are asking in the wake of Camping World’s decision to abandon a plan to purchase the former Gander Mountain property on Central Texas Expressway and transform it into an outlet for the nationally known RV dealer.
The loss of the prospective business cost the city a projected $40 million in annual revenue and 50 jobs — a boost Killeen could definitely use.
In addition, the RV business seemed like a natural fit for a community with a large segment of military retirees and young families.
But, as of Tuesday, the proposal for a Killeen location is no longer on the table.
Considering the Killeen Economic Development Corporation is charged with the task of bringing new businesses to the community, why wasn’t the entity involved in the negotiating process?
KEDC President John Crutchfield gave two reasons: It wasn’t asked, and it isn’t KEDC’s job.
Crutchfield noted that the KEDC’s job is to pair interested businesses with potential locations in which to locate. In this instance, Camping World had already focused on the Gander Mountain property, which includes a 52,000-square-foot building and surrounding lot. Camping World also planned to acquire an adjacent lot for the project.
Crutchfield and Mayor Jose Segarra both noted that the KEDC was not asked to assist because the negotiations were over zoning of the property, an area where KEDC has no authority.
While both answers may apply when it comes to the initial negotiations regarding the property, KEDC’s input may have been valuable later on.
Let’s look at how this project evolved, and subsequently unraveled.
First, Camping World approached the city back in October about rezoning the property to accommodate the project.
The council didn’t receive a presentation about the proposed project until Dec. 8 — after city staff had time to review Camping World’s request, solicit input from surrounding property owners and make a recommendation to the Planning and Zoning commission for a vote.
In that Dec. 8 meeting, council members by a 4-2 vote shot down the rezoning request, which would have allowed Camping World to operate a service department, requiring a more intensive B-4 zoning.
But the city wasn’t done. At Segarra’s urging, the planning and zoning commission considered and approved a reworked request to allow a conditional-use permit on the property, which would allow Camping World to operate under the current B-3 zoning but with requirements regarding exterior site lighting, fencing and others.
In the resulting back and forth, Camping World applied for the CUP, submitted a site plan and then a revised site plan — the last revision coming to the city less than half an hour before the Planning and Zoning Commission was scheduled to consider the proposal. Camping World’s latest proposal also called for RV parking within the property’s fire lane — which is against city ordinance.
All of this latest flurry of activity was taking place just three days before Christmas, and time was running out if Camping World wanted to close on the property by year’s end, as its representative stated in his presentation to the council.
On Dec. 21, Camping World responded that it would like to work with the city on the issue, and the city was planning to move ahead with a vote on the conditional-use permit at Tuesday’s meeting.
But just hours before the council was to consider the proposal, Camping World pulled the plug on the project, saying the site was just too small to accommodate the dealership.
This brings us back to the Killeen EDC.
Granted, all this time, the back-and-forth was strictly between the city planning staff and the potential buyer of the property. So EDC would seem to have had no role to play.
But Camping World’s seemingly overnight decision to pull out of Killeen might have been averted if the buyers had a few other options for their project.
Certainly, the Gander Mountain site was preferable, because Camping World has been acquiring other failed Gander Mountain locations and repurposing them in just this manner.
But if the prospective buyers had some other potential sites to choose from — along with offers of tax abatements or other accommodations, they might have been persuaded to keep their project in Killeen.
One such possibility would be the site of the former Mazda dealership on Stan Schlueter Loop, as suggested in a recent letter to the editor.
The property already features a large showroom, offices and a sizeable lot for vehicle sales. Like Gander Mountain, it has easy access to I-14. But unlike Gander Mountain, it already has a vehicle service area.
If the KEDC had been kept apprised of the negotiations and given access to Camping World’s representatives, it might have been possible for KEDC officials to pick up on the buyers’ reservations or concerns and steer them toward other potential properties.
Of course, it’s entirely possible that Camping World officials were in an all-or-nothing mode when it came to Gander Mountain.
But at this point, it’s difficult to accept that nothing could have been done to prevent the city from losing out on such a job-creating, revenue-producing opportunity.
None of this is to say that KEDC did anything wrong in this case, or that the city blew it by imposing restrictions at the 11th hour.
On the contrary, it appears that Camping World planners may have tried to rush the project and didn’t take all the details into account when submitting their plans to the city.
Still, the city is funding KEDC at more than $725,000 per year, and that money is given with the expectation that the city will receive new businesses and more jobs in return.
With that in mind, the EDC’s role should be adjusted so that its president is brought in on any city discussions involving a potential new business — regardless of whether an existing property has been identified. At that point, the EDC can offer advice and answer questions regarding potential incentives or alternate site possibilities.
Obviously, Camping World considered the Killeen community to be a viable market for its products, or it wouldn’t have proposed locating here — though the availability of the existing Gander Mountain building was surely a major incentive.
The Killeen EDC has been trying to shop the Gander Mountain property for more than three years, and so far has just a leased discount mattress store to show for its efforts.
With the arrival of a potential big-name buyer like Camping World, Killeen officials should have rolled out the red carpet and welcomed the company’s representative to town.
Regardless of whether the company ultimately decided to go ahead with the project, the city should have gone to great lengths to let Camping World know that its interest was appreciated.
It’s not every day that a nationally known company comes knocking on Killeen’s door.
If and when it happens again, our city needs to be a little more accommodating.
Ultimately, a little Southern hospitality may not close the deal — but it sure couldn’t hurt.