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New role for Krafts: developers

The New England Patriots will have to watch the Super Bowl uncomfortably from the sidelines this year. But we know that resident genius Bill Belichick is already hard at work on next year's game plan. His bosses, the Kraft family, are built the same way, and they, too, are hard at work building the future -- on and off the field.

The Krafts got rich making corrugated boxes. They got even richer building a championship football franchise. Forbes magazine pegs the family fortune at $1.1 billion. Now they are planning a third leg to the family business as big-time developers.

How big? Think Prudential Center big. While the Krafts are not ready to talk about it, several executives in the real estate and construction industries who have been briefed on the plans say the family is putting together an ambitious development on its 500 acres around Gillette Stadium that will exceed 1 million square feet. The working name: Patriots Place.

The development, a kind of ''guy mall," will be heavily oriented toward big-box retail stores and entertainment. A Home Depot would be a natural. It is likely to include a hotel, restaurants, a 16-screen National Amusements theater, smaller boutique stores, and a ''lifestyle center" that would have a day-surgery center where guys could get their shoulder fixed without having to go into Boston. The Krafts already have a growing, largely male conference business at the stadium. The parts are still subject to change, but expect an announcement this year.

The Krafts have already reeled in a key component of Patriots Place. Bass Pro Shops, the wildly popular Wal-Mart of outdoor retailers, has signed on with the Krafts to open one of its megastores, probably next year. Bass Pro Shops is a phenomenon that last year drew 78 million people to its stores, the company says. Its flagship Missouri store -- which is the size of seven football fields -- is that state's number one tourist attraction.

Bass Pro is both retailer and entertainer. No two stores are the same, but in general they include things like waterfalls, flowing streams, trout ponds, aquariums, live animals, and indoor shooting ranges. The demographic: men who usually hate to shop. The Foxborough store, which will include a Bass Pro Islamorada Fish Company restaurant, is expected to be 150,000 to 175,000 square feet. It will employ 300 to 400 people.

A few miles down Route 1, Bass Pro's big rival, Cabela's, is considering coming to the Plainville-Wrentham area. In a letter Monday, the retailer told Plainville's town administrator it wants to open a 180,000-square foot store near the intersection of Interstate 495 and Route 1. The complex would include a hotel and a restaurant, and about 225 full-time jobs and another 300 part-time jobs. Cabela's put the project cost at $50 million.

The two outdoor chains are expanding fast and are famous -- or infamous -- for prying loose fat tax incentives for developers from cities hungry for ''destination" retailers. Broken Arrow, Okla., for instance, spent $24 million in public funds to land a Bass Pro Shop. Garland, Texas, spent $24 million and Council Bluffs, Iowa, offered $20 million, according to local news reports.

So far, however, the companies have taken very different approaches to tax incentives in Massachusetts. The Kraft family recruited Bass Pro to Foxborough with no promises of financial assistance, says a Bass Pro spokesman and a second executive knowledgeable about the deal. Cabela's, by contrast, says it is looking for property tax relief and investment tax credits from the state. ''Our expansion would require a significant amount of on- and off-site infrastructure improvements," Ed Eckman, a Cabela's executive, wrote in the letter to Plainville. A Cabela's spokesman did not return my call.

A state official said the Massachusetts Office of Economic Development reached out to Cabela's when it learned that the chain was considering expanding into New Hampshire. ''Massachusetts wasn't even on the radar screen," said the official, who asked not to be named.

A Kraft spokesman declined to comment. But look for the Krafts to expect the same incentives for Bass Pro if they are approved for Cabela's.

Bass Pro and Cabela's compete head-to-head in a number of markets, including the Dallas area and Kansas City. Bass Pro is based in Springfield, Mo., and has 33 stores in the United States; Cabela's is based in Sidney, Neb., and has 14 stores. Bass Pro is a private company with revenue estimated at close to $2 billion. Cabela's is a public company with revenue of $1.6 billion in 2004.

Cabela's recent financial results raise questions about increasing competition and how these Red State outdoor retailers will travel as they expand aggressively to the Blue States in the Northeast. In the latest quarter, for instance, Cabela's same-store sales decreased 8.7 percent; net income was flat. Cabela's stock has slipped from $22.50 in August to $16.70.

Foxborough officials did not return my calls about the Krafts' development plans. But much of the zoning the Krafts will need to build was put in place at the time the new stadium was approved. Increased traffic is always an issue, but may be less so in Foxborough, where the roadways were expanded to handle 23,000 cars on game day.

Steve Bailey is a Globe columnist. He can be reached at bailey@globe.com or at 617-929-2902.

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