After Cabela’s sale, Sidney braces for what could be ‘terrible effect’ on housing market

After Cabela’s sale, Sidney braces for what could be ‘terrible effect’ on housing market
Photo Courtesy: World-Herald News Service

Two years ago you would’ve been hard-pressed to find a home for sale in Sidney, Nebraska.

The town of about 6,800, where Cabela’s employs 2,000, had more jobs than people to fill them. Houses sold fast. And the hometown outdoor retailing giant was pushing full-steam ahead on financing a new subdivision to meet demand for worker housing.

Now, in the wake of the company’s announced sale to Springfield, Missouri-based competitor Bass Pro Shops, construction on the subdivision has halted. And Sidney homeowners are facing a new reality: They may be stuck with nice homes that no one wants to buy.

As one Cabela’s employee put it, the housing market has been “the only topic of conversation in my house for the past year.”

He purchased his home about a year and a half ago, before Cabela’s was targeted by an activist investor from New York that was clamoring for change, before the company announced its strategic review that telegraphed that it was for sale.

Back then, he said, there were three houses for sale in the family’s price range. Now, using the same parameters, there are slightly more than 100 on the market.

The employee, who asked not to be identified, expects to lose at least $80,000 on the investment in his home.

“The issue isn’t the loss of money, although that is huge. It’s being able to ever sell the house at all, even if I’m offered a position at Bass Pro in Springfield,” the employee said.

“For the first time ever, we are considering having to walk away and absorb the foreclosure,” he said. “Incredibly stressful.”

Bass Pro Shops has said that the company understands Cabela’s deep ties to Sidney, and that it “intends to continue to maintain important bases of operations in Sidney.” Cabela’s also said, in filings to the Securities and Exchange Commission, that the combined company’s headquarters will be in Springfield.

Cabela’s declined to comment for this story. Bass Pro told The World-Herald that it had nothing to say beyond its initial statement.

Bass Pro probably had its sights on Cabela’s so that the company could take out a major competitor, and save money in the process.

“It’s very likely that those central office facilities functions will be combined,” said Ernie Goss, an economics professor at Creighton University. “That’s one of the reasons you do this, is to make cost savings.”

Even if Cabela’s were to maintain a large presence in Sidney after the takeover, the uncertainty before the deal closes next year and Bass Pro announces any changes won’t do any favors for the Sidney economy.

Many people already have abandoned ship and listed their homes. That puts downward pressure on all real estate prices, said Kevin Ross, managing partner at Asmus Brothers Realty in Scottsbluff.

For instance, there were 103 homes on the market last week in Sidney, according to data from real-estate information company Zillow that was compiled for The World-Herald by Great Western Bank. In Alliance, Nebraska, a city with about 2,500 more people, there were 42 homes on the market. In North Platte, which has 23,000 more people than Sidney, there were 132 homes on the market. (Not all homes listed for sale are listed on Zillow, so the numbers could vary in each of the cities; still, real estate experts say the data is at least a close approximation.)

Even if a third of Cabela’s employees lose their jobs, it could devastate Sidney’s housing market, Ross said.

“You take a town that size and put even 200 homes on the market, all at once, it’s going to have a terrible effect,” he said. “Values are going to drop; there’s going to be no one to sell them to. That’s going to be a really, really tough market.”

The flood of homes already for sale is in stark contrast with what’s been a severe housing shortage in Sidney, which made hiring a challenge for Cabela’s over the years. In 2013 the company announced that it would develop a $350 million to $500 million project bringing more than 700 single-family homes in a new subdivision called The Ranch.

Today, The Ranch is more like a ghost town.

About 80 lots are ready for construction, but only four houses are under construction. StoneCrest Construction of Fort Collins, Colorado, is nearing completion on those first four homes, but its president, Robert Millward, said he has little hope of selling them now. He said he might miss out on an estimated $1 million in sale value on the four homes.

Millward said he continued construction this year despite red flags about Cabela’s and despite two other contractors pulling out. He kept going based on the assurance of Cabela’s executives, he said.

“We kept being told ‘We’re just restructuring, everything’s good,’ ” he said. Now he and his investors are angry. “To say that I feel misled would not be inaccurate.”

Amid the uncertainty over Cabela’s, homes also are taking longer to sell in Sidney: In August the median number of days that a home was on the market was 109, according to data from the National Association of Realtors. That’s higher than the 81 days that a home sat on the market in August 2015 and the 65 days in 2014. (The national average in August of this year was 36 days, according to the Realtors data.)

And Sidney does indeed have a high number of homes listed for its size, said Lawrence Yun, chief economist at the Realtors association. Typically a city will have one or two homes listed for every 100 households, he said. Sidney, with just over 3,000 households, according to the U.S. Census Bureau, might normally expect to have 30 to 60 listings compared with last week’s figure of more than 100.

When a big company pulls a headquarters out of town, residents have cause to worry about home value, Yun said. “It’s not good news.”

One Sidney homeowner, who declined to be identified, was laid off by Cabela’s in the past year and recently listed his home for sale. He said he is worried about getting a new job elsewhere because his family can’t afford two mortgage payments. Three homes on his block are for sale, and have been for over a year, he said.

“A lot of employers are wanting to have someone start next week,” he said, “so it’s kind of hard to give a definite answer on when I would be available without having an active housing market.”

Leland Poppe, North Platte market president for Great Western Bank, which also operates in Sidney, said the laws of economics suggest that home prices there will fall.

He advised homeowners to talk to their banker early if they anticipate problems paying a mortgage, or want to talk about how to survive a situation in which they sell their home at a loss. Some sellers may have stock in Cabela’s that could provide a financial cushion when the company sells, he said.

“A lot of times the problems aren’t as bad as they may seem,” he said.

Poppe said Great Western isn’t concerned about its own portfolio in Sidney, where it is one of the smaller banks.

He expects Sidney’s economy will eventually rebound from whatever hit it could take. Other businesses will be able to expand when the labor market loosens, and the town has a lot to offer those enterprises with a strong work ethic and community amenities like the high school and outdoor recreation, he said.

Steve Smith, president of Sidney Federal Savings & Loan Association, said the bank hasn’t had problems with delinquent home loans and is still originating new home loans. New loans ticked up this summer when the start of the school year brought new teachers to town, he said.

Total home loan volume is “a little less than average,” he said.

“A lot of the problem is a result of the lack of information or the uncertainty that we’ve been going through for almost a year now,” he said. “What would help with that would be some kind of more definitive statement from Bass Pro as to what their plans are for Sidney. Fear takes over when people don’t know what their jobs are going to be.”

Smith said he is hopeful that Bass Pro will want to keep a strong presence in Sidney.

Nebraska Gov. Pete Ricketts has said he’ll try to convince Bass Pro to keep jobs in Sidney and perhaps even add to its payroll in the state. And Yun, the economist with the Realtors association, said that even if there are big job losses, Sidney could work to recruit a new company or new jobs from Lincoln, Omaha or Colorado’s Front Range. Sidney also could market itself as a retirement or recreation destination, Yun said.

But if job losses do happen, it would of course hit the broader economy, not just the housing market, Yun said. People would have less to spend, certainly, but if their home equity evaporates, they’ll feel even less confident about spending money, he said.

“They just don’t go out and buy a car or go to a restaurant,” he said.

When contacted by The World-Herald, several Sidney business owners said they were nervous about possible job losses but were reluctant to speak on the record because they said family members worked for Cabela’s.

Goss, the Creighton economist, said that in the event of Cabela’s job cuts, each loss could mean another job cut in a related industry.

“The spillover impacts will be quite significant,” he said. “It’s not so much because of the loss of jobs, it’s the loss of very good jobs.”

Cabela’s offered a generous benefits package to its employees, who sought health care services from the local hospital, clinics and doctors. Those health services may see a decline in patients.

“It’s just across the board,” Goss said: car dealers, shops, beauty parlors — you name it.

Right now, though, the focus is on housing, locals say.

Even Sidney Mayor Mark Nienhueser’s home recently was for sale. Nienhueser was laid off from Cabela’s real estate department about a year ago, before Elliott Management, the New York hedge fund, got involved.

But Nienhueser told The World-Herald that he has taken his home off the market.

“We’re going to be in Sidney for a while until all of this clears up,” he said of the uncertainty surrounding Cabela’s. “I was going to pursue some other job opportunities, but now I need to take care of things here.”

He said he’s aware of residents’ concerns over home values. “Everyone has a concern — legitimately.”

He said he is working with local and state officials on a proposal to present to Bass Pro officials.

“We’re going to put an aggressive proposal together for Johnny Morris and his team, to make sure they understand the value that Nebraska brings to his organization,” Nienhueser said of the Bass Pro founder and chief executive.

Meanwhile, Lutz Talent, an Omaha recruiting agency that focuses on accounting, information technology and financial hires, has seen an increase in résumés from current Cabela’s employees in the past six months, Lutz director Josh Boesch said.

In turn, Lutz’s corporate clients “are looking to hire Cabela’s employees, within accounting and finance in particular,” he said.

Boesch said he has seen some of the area’s larger companies offer “some kind of signing bonus to potential job candidates, depending on the level of the candidate and the available position.”

Those bonuses have ranged from a “signing bonus to covering the difference in what they owe on a house.” In other cases, larger companies have been known to buy the house outright from a potential employee. Such a move frees the job candidate from the distress associated with trying to sell a home in a saturated market. The new employer is effectively saying “That house is now ours, we’ll worry about selling it,” he said.

Before ConAgra Foods moved its headquarters from Omaha to Chicago it offered some employees “large severance packages for them to stay through a certain date,” Boesch said.

That same scenario would become more complicated for Cabela’s employees who also are Sidney-area homeowners.

“Given the size of the town and what could happen with the real estate issues,” he said, “you don’t want to be the one turning the lights off, because you’re likely the one to be holding the bag.”