Steve Zobel, co-owner of the Bootjack stores, said the state didn't offer his family any financial incentives as they built up the business to include three locations in North Charleston, West Ashley and Orangeburg.
The company's founders had to reach into their own pockets to launch the boot and clothing chain in 1978.
Zobel doesn't see why a deep-pocketed national competitor should be treated any differently.
"I don't mind (chain stores') pricing, but I mind them coming here on my tax dollars," Zobel said Wednesday.
At issue for Zobel and other local businesses is recently passed state legislation offering incentives to "extraordinary" retailers such as Cabela's and its main competitor, Bass Pro Shops.
It has become the latest cause for Gov. Mark Sanford, who recently wrote to the top executive of Cabela's saying that
South Carolina would welcome the outdoor outfitting giant to the state. But the governor's letter also stressed his distaste for giving tax breaks to retailers, including the Nebraska-based chain, which has been eyeing North Charleston for a new store.
The governor reiterated his concerns about retail incentives during stops Wednesday in Charleston and the Upstate.
Supporters of the enticements say they're justified because the expansive stores they target create jobs, draw tourists and spur economic development by attracting "spinoff" businesses such as hotels and restaurants.
Sanford and other opponents say the tax breaks are unfair to local business owners and could open a Pandora's box in the future, leading other large retailers to demand similar perks.
"We don't think it makes sense to penalize local retailers to bring new business to the state," Sanford said during a stop at Haddrell's Point Tackle in West Ashley. "You ought to grow your business by competing in the marketplace."
Flanked by fishing poles and local business owners including Zobel, Sanford said the goal of his visits was to encourage taxpayers to contact state lawmakers and urge them to repeal the legislation.
Most local retailers who attended Wednesday's event said they opposed subsidizing large chain stores with tax money, because they already compete with big-box stores' pricing power.
Local retailers said they also must pay higher wages than chain stores to attract employees with in-depth product and market expertise.
"It costs to have knowledge," said Dee Meador, a manager at Luden's Outfitters in downtown Charleston. Customers come to the long-standing store seeking advice on everything from which gear to buy to where to find the best local fishing holes, he said.
Local shops also try to give back to the community, offering educational seminars and sponsoring events such as fishing tournaments, said Caroline Rhodes, co-owner of The Charleston Angler. "We offer service and investment in the community," she said.
State lawmakers last month passed a bill offering tax breaks to attract an "extraordinary retail establishment" to the state. While the legislation doesn't name a specific retailer, lawmakers have said it's aimed at luring Springfield, Mo.-based Bass Pro Shops to the Greer area.
The measure expanded on a similar bill passed last year aimed at enticing Cabela's to North Charleston. Sanford vetoed both bills, but lawmakers overrode him.
In the most recent legislation, an extraordinary retailer must invest at least $25 million in its site, attract at least two million visitors a year and remit at least $2 million in sales taxes annually. In return, qualified retailers can receive sales-tax rebates and tax credits for full-time-job creation, among other incentives.
While such deal sweeteners are common to lure large industrial or manufacturing projects, they're unusual in the retail sector, given the industry's highly competitive nature and the mostly low-paying jobs it creates.
Bass Pro already operates a store in Myrtle Beach — opened without incentives, as the state Commerce Department noted this week — while Cabela's has no locations in the state.
The chains tout their stores as tourist destinations, drawing millions of visitors each year with vast product selections and attractions such as aquariums and wildlife displays. Bass Pro, for instance, says almost half of its customers come from more than 50 miles away.
Both companies have sizable catalog sales but are aggressively expanding their retail operations. Bass Pro has about 40 stores, with about 10 more set to open this year, while Cabela's has about 20, with about a dozen in the works.
Both have also sought out, and received, incentives for opening stores in other states. But some states that granted incentives later asked the retailers to return some of that money after the stores didn't meet hiring or sales goals. Others have denied the companies' requests for such perks. Kentucky lawmakers, for instance, recently rejected legislation to provide $20 million in tax breaks to Cabela's, Sanford said.
The governor also questioned whether the stores could attract the visitor numbers they claim. With about 82 Cabela's and Bass Pro locations open by year-end, each drawing about 3 million visitors a year by company accounts, the stores would draw about 246 million annual visitors. The U.S. population is about 300 million, according to the U.S. Census.
"It would mean almost every man, woman and child in the United States would have to visit one of their stores each year," Sanford said. "The numbers just don't add up."
Some retailers wondered where legislators would draw the line on offering incentives to national chains. If the government continues giving tax breaks to big companies, "Who's going to be left to pay the bills?" said Neil Schachte, owner of Carolina Rod & Gun in West Ashley.
The incentive money could be used for other public purposes, such as building parks or wildlife habitat, he said. "This is not just a retail issue, it is a taxpayer issue."