‘We can survive
… We have to’: Sidney residents brace for life without Cabela’s

‘We can survive
… We have to’: Sidney residents brace for life without Cabela’s
World-Herald News Service

SIDNEY, Neb. — After nearly two years of uncertainty, people here finally have a clear picture — but one that doesn’t include the corporate flag of hometown retailer Cabela’s.

It stings in this town of 6,800 people that once had more than 2,000 Cabela’s workers, people here said last week, after shareholders voted to sell the company to Missouri-based Bass Pro.

But it’s time to finally rip off the Band-Aid, they said. Residents say there’s no point in dwelling on the inevitable; that it’s time to get to work figuring out what Sidney will be without the headquarters of Cabela’s. Bass Pro has said it will leave some functions in the city, but it hasn’t said how many it will continue to employ.

Some people in town see new opportunities, harking back to other large employers that closed up shop in decades past, only to see the city bounce back even stronger. But others are less sanguine, saying that a small, isolated city about six hours west of Omaha has little chance of attracting middle-management-type jobs that Cabela’s is likely to cut.

Still, after last week’s vote, “things are going in a direction, at least,” said Joey Gorman, owner of Dude’s Steakhouse & Brandin’ Iron Bar, an institution in Sidney since 1952.

Wendy Pemberton, owner of Della’s Cafe on Sidney’s main street, agreed.

“The town is, like, at least we know our fate,” she said, noting that when the Federal Trade Commission gave its OK for the Bass-Cabela’s tie-up earlier this month, that’s when certainty set in for many in town.

Many here last week said resilience is a way of life in Sidney. It survived the 1967 closing of the Sioux Army Depot, which employed more than 2,000 people. The town can survive a loss of Cabela’s jobs, too, they said.

“It’s not the end of the world,” said Teresa Grant, who has owned the Sidney Floral & Gift shop since 1994. “We can survive through tough times. We have to.”

Even so, Grant said, yes, business has been down — but she noted that retail businesses worldwide have been struggling. And the regional pain doesn’t stop at Cabela’s. Wheat prices are down, affecting the local economy, and so are the oil and rail industries, both of which have a presence in Sidney.

Not everyone is so optimistic. Some said that even though Bass Pro had said it would maintain a presence in Sidney, the company didn’t guarantee anything — and who knows what kinds of jobs it will leave behind when it consolidates headquarters operations in Springfield, Missouri? For instance, there’s no need for two personnel departments, two marketing departments and so on.

For so long, Cabela’s presence has permeated every pore of Sidney — like the “elephant in the room,” said Emil Assad, owner of local Conserve Flag Co. who retired from Cabela’s as vice president of finance 15 years ago.

“Most employees are professionals with middle-management backgrounds,” he said. “When they lose their job, it’s not like they can go across the street and get another job.”

Bass Pro might have more leeway to make decisions for the good of the town because it is a private company rather than a publicly traded one like Cabela’s, which answers to shareholders, Assad said. But its financial backers — for instance, New York investment bank Goldman Sachs — may not care.

“Lots of people put their faith in that they (Bass Pro) say they’re going to take care of people,” Assad said. “A private company can do whatever their hearts desire, and whatever the bottom line reflects, that’s what they’ll do.”

Last year Bass Pro Chief Executive Johnny Morris conceded to Cabela’s employees that while Bass Pro plans to keep jobs there, there would be cuts, too.

For Lee “Stewie” Stewart, owner of Stewie’s Bar, the sale of Cabela’s has hindered the sale of his own business.

He put up the bar for sale before the tussle between Cabela’s and a New York hedge fund that led to the takeover by Bass Pro. He has some interested buyers, he said, but once it was announced that the hometown employer’s fate was up in the air, the offers disappeared, and one potential buyer couldn’t get a loan from the bank, he said.

A hair salon two doors down “shut down overnight”; it formerly was owned by the spouse of a Cabela’s employee who left town, Stewart said. And many of his regulars already took jobs out of town.

“The big hedge fund came and, oh boy, here we go,” Stewart said. “All of a sudden, everybody kinda got a little tight with their money and quit coming out. Now it’s the same way, but getting like a ghost town almost. Nobody wants to come out anymore.”

Business at Cal’s Center Barbershop has been down for about two years, owner Cal Brauer said.

And the uncertainty?

“It’s just getting started,” Brauer said.

Shock, anger and sadness have reverberated throughout the town since Cabela’s announced in October that it would sell itself to Bass Pro.

As the proposed deal hit several bumps in the road, so, too, has Sidney. Regulatory rigor threatened to kill or stall the sale, and the companies already have restructured the deal once. Uncertainty has loomed for nearly two years, when Elliott Management, the hedge fund, got involved and pushed for a sale. At the time, it claimed Cabela’s was undervalued as its sales struggled and stock price continued to fall.

In December, the deal was at a standstill; it was unclear how Cabela’s might be able to sell World’s Foremost Bank, its credit card operation, which must be offloaded before the retail arm can sell to Bass Pro.

That same month, antitrust regulators had requested more information about the deal, and investors were concerned a sale might be stalled beyond the Oct. 3 merger deadline, or killed altogether.

But federal regulators gave the go-ahead for the sale to proceed last month, and Cabela’s shareholders approved the sale in a special meeting at Cabela’s headquarters last week. In the spring, the companies announced they’d found a workaround to sell the bank: a Georgia bank will buy World’s Foremost, and it will then offload the credit card portfolio to the original buyer, Capital One.

That deal is the final hurdle for the sale to go through: Federal bank regulators must approve the workaround for the World’s Foremost sale. Many analysts say they expect the deal to go through with no problem.

Greg Huck, owner of Financial Partners financial planning firm in Sidney, said it’s time for people in town to look toward the future rather than dwell on the past.

“What happens up on the hill is gonna happen,” he said, referring to Cabela’s headquarters, “and there’s nothing I can do about it. As an individual, there’s not much anyone can do about it.”

Gorman, the owner of Dude’s, said things are looking up in the Panhandle town after townspeople spent so long wondering when the other shoe would drop.

“At least we’re not at a standstill” anymore, Gorman said. Residents and business owners said they had faith in city and state leaders who say they are doing everything they can to sell Bass Pro on keeping a presence in Sidney, and to bring in new businesses.

Regardless of what happens, Pemberton, Stewart and many others say they plan to stay in Sidney. Others say they’re confident new employers will come in to take Cabela’s place. Many businesses in town started long before Cabela’s came into the picture, Gorman said, and they’ll be here even after Cabela’s pulls at least some of its people out of town.

Meanwhile, the Oct. 3 closing date looms for the sale to Bass Pro.

Sidney residents have hope it provides some closure for them, too.

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