I was in Mobile, Alabama, earlier this month, when the state’s first Buc-ee’s—indeed, the first Buc-ee’s outside of the convenience store chain’s home state of Texas—opened to much fanfare on a highly traveled stretch of Interstate 10 near the Baldwin Beach Express.
A bit wistfully, I read the article on the Mobile Press-Register’s website about the larger-than-life gas station complex, with its buck-toothed beaver-branded souvenirs, homestyle fudge and beef jerky.
More than 52,000 square feet of retail space. 120 gas pumps. 200 permanent jobs. The cleanest restrooms in the world. A Texas-sized success come to coastal Alabama.
This, you may recall, was supposed to be ours.
In March 2016, Buc-ee’s announced it would open its first store outside of the Lone Star State—not in Alabama, but off Interstate 12 in Baton Rouge at the Greens at Millerville.
At the time, company founder Arch “Beaver” Aplin told me the Baton Rouge location was ideal because “it’s on the interstate, it has the traffic, it has the employment base, and it has LSU … It has everything we wanted. We’re excited about busting into Louisiana.”
Nine months later, Buc-ee’s backed out of the deal. It never said why. A local engineer working with the company would say only that “the stars did not align in Louisiana.” Greens at Millerville owner Windy Gladney to this day is mystified.
To be fair, the August 2016 flood likely played a role in scaring the company away. No question, the timing was unfortunate.
But when you talk to people about what really went wrong, they suggest there was more to it than just the flood. Rather, it was the Louisiana way of doing business that soured Buc-ee’s executives, at least in part, on making an investment in the Bayou State.
Anyone who comes from the outside to do business here will know what I’m talking about. Perhaps it’s a simple suggestion that a project will progress more quickly if a particular friend or brother-in-law is brought on board as a subcontractor.
Perhaps it’s the months-long permitting delays that no longer raise eyebrows here but raise all sorts of red flags to developers from places that function efficiently.
Perhaps it’s the fact that even though the state has fixed problems with its Industrial Tax Exemption Program, or ITEP, twice in the past three years, some local governmental entities are threatening to wreck those reforms by pandering to constituencies and playing to TV cameras.
Perhaps it’s a little bit of all of the above. But the bottom line is that there’s a Byzantine way of doing things here that is a little corrupt, a lot inept and completely counter to how things should be done.
On that same trip to Mobile, we met a guy in a restaurant at dinner and started talking. He had his own stories about doing business in south Louisiana and his own theory of why it’s so difficult. He works for the Gulf Coast office of a large, multinational corporation. He has family in New Orleans and friends in Baton Rouge. He knows of what he speaks and says it’s a little like doing deals in a developing nation.
“It’s a whole different world,” he said of Louisiana in general and Baton Rouge in particular. “It’s closed to outsiders. It’s all about who you know, hiring the right people. Everywhere you go, someone tells you, ‘I’ve got the guy for that.’”
His experience is anecdotal. But that doesn’t mean it’s not true. And I’d bet a set of braces for a buck-toothed beaver that it was that kind of mentality that sent Buc-ee’s packing for Alabama.
It’s important to note, by the way, that Alabama did not offer Buc-ee’s any tax incentives to come to the Baldwin Beach Express. Though some Texas municipalities have dished out millions to lure Buc-ee’s to their locale, the only concession Alabama granted the company was $400,000 in traffic signal upgrades.
This is important because it’s not just about the tax breaks, per se. What it is about is how fairly and uniformly tax breaks are administered. And not just tax breaks, by the way, but anything that businesses need to plan and execute, be that contracts, permits or programs. The rules need to be clear and consistently applied to outsiders as well as to well connected locals. For some reason, we cannot seem to get that right.
As the ongoing debate over the state’s ITEP rages anew in the face of a recent decision by the East Baton Rouge Parish School Board to deny ExxonMobil a request for a tax abatement on a project that was completed in 2017, it’s also important to remember that companies will pay taxes, just as they will request tax breaks that may or may not be well deserved.
What they won’t do is tolerate rules that vary from one company to another.
At the end of the day, it doesn’t so much matter that we lost Buc-ee’s, though it would have been a boon for the local economy. It does matter that we might lose future ExxonMobil investment, particularly in Baton Rouge, where Georgia-Pacific, BASF and Thompson Pipe Group have all recently announced layoffs.
This does not mean ExxonMobil should be granted every tax break it requests through ITEP. It does mean we need to do a better job fostering a climate that is friendly to business and outsiders, not by granting them favors, but by treating them fairly.