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Mark Bennett Opinion

March 6, 2010

MARK BENNETT: Terre Haute air travelers will see entrepreneurial spirit in Ozark Mountain town

TERRE HAUTE — There’s a good reason why a community of fewer than 8,000 residents is the destination for the first passenger airline service from Terre Haute in years.

Branson, Missouri — population 7,499 — has spirit.

The soil is too rocky for expansive farming. But the Ozark Mountain town possesses three lakes (and a fourth nearby in Arkansas), wildlife and scenery. Outdoorsmen found entertainment at a handful of theaters along Highway 76, where gospel and hillbilly musicians, comics and dancers performed. When “Hee Haw” star Roy Clark opened his own theater in 1983, the main drag through town — “The Strip” — slowly began to grow.

Today, Branson draws tourists worldwide to watch a smorgasbord of Americana performers in nearly 50 theaters, from Andy Williams (the “Moon River” crooner) to Jim Stafford (he sang “Spiders and Snakes”), Mickey Gilley (“Girls All Get Prettier at Closing Time”), the Osmonds (“One Bad Apple”), Tony Orlando (“Tie a Yellow Ribbon”), Glen Campbell (“Galveston”), the Oak Ridge Boys (“Elvira”), Yakov Smirnoff (“America: What a Country”) and others.

There are amusement parks, too, such as Silver Dollar City, fishing havens such as Bass Pro headquarters in Springfield and the four lakes, and museums, including “the world’s largest Titanic museum.” (Shouldn’t all Titanic museums be really, really big?)

And the place has the new Branson Landing waterfront development. It’s a $420-million project with dozens of high-end shops, restaurants and a convention center along the bank of Lake Taneycomo in downtown Branson.

“They’re utilizing the resources they have in the best way they know how,” said David Mitchell, director of the Bureau of Economic Research at Missouri State University.

The natural resources, obviously, are the mountains, lakes and streams.

But Branson’s man-made resource — entertainment — had to be cultivated. A quirky moment in the national spotlight preceded its 1980s tourism growth. The creator of television’s “The Beverly Hillbillies” based the comedy on Branson, which he visited on a camping trip. Five “Beverly Hillbillies” episodes in 1969 were filmed in Branson, their fictional home. Besides that, the town’s theatrical attributes boiled down to a fledgling Silver Dollar City, a couple theaters and a toy museum.

Branson now draws 8.4 million visitors a year, including many from the Wabash Valley, looking for a low-cost, family vacation spot. Hence, the new air service from Terre Haute to Branson. Starting May 17, Branson AirExpress will fly travelers from Terre Haute to Branson every Monday, Wednesday and Saturday. The introductory price will be about $118, round trip.

So how did Branson transform itself from a piece of TV trivia via Jed Clampett to the busiest little town in America?

“We get asked that question a lot, by other towns, other regions that want to replicate what’s happened here,” Garrett Anderson, Branson’s economic development director, said by phone last week.

“Really,” Anderson continued, “it’s just the entrepreneurial spirit.”

An embodiment of that attitude is the Branson Landing. If Terre Haute needs a dream-big example of waterfront development for the proposed Riverscape project along the Wabash River, the Branson Landing is it.

Of the $420-million pricetag, the town put up $120 million through two public bond issues. The first $40 million funded the land development for the convention center. The next $80 million covered new infrastructure — streets, lights, sidewalks, water and sewers. On the private side, a developer — HCW Development Co. — financed the remaining $300 million.

The Landing has given tourists another reason to visit Branson. The waterfront site now has more than 100 shops and eateries, from Build-a-Bear to Victoria’s Secret, Bass Pro, Famous Dave’s, the Macaroni Grill and Ben & Jerry’s. A visitors poll, Anderson said, showed that “about 80 percent [of Branson’s tourists] are coming to do shopping, and about 60 percent are coming because of the Landing.”

The Landing officially opened in 2006, but reached full capacity in 2008, said Lori Helle, director of finance and personnel for the City of Branson. And, of course, that means the project hit full stride during the low point of the Great Recession. “That’s the bad part,” Helle said in a telephone interview last week.

To a degree, recession-wounded shoppers and tourists have simply shifted from other Branson sites to those at the Landing. “The Landing is definitely doing well,” Helle said, “but it’s probably pulled a lot from other portions of the city.”

The city is conducting a five-year status report on the project and its public funding, Helle said. The $120 million city contribution comes through a 23-year tax increment financing (TIF) district.

Branson, though, weathered the recession better than most towns, according to Mitchell at Missouri State. Taxable sales in Branson were up 16 percent in 2007, compared to those in 2000, he said. The rest of the state’s taxable sales rose just 1 percent from 2000 to 2007. As of 2010, taxable sales in Missouri are down 10 percent from 2000, while Branson’s are up a modest 2.5 percent over the decade.

In a nutshell, revenue has slowed in Branson since 2007, but the community still came through the recession on the plus side.

Few American cities, including Terre Haute, can say that right now.

That’s largely because Branson has shown the fortitude to dream, build and progress, and play to its strengths. As the demographic group that fueled the town’s surge in the 1980s and 1990s — the “Greatest Generation” that came of age during World War II — reached its 70s and 80s, Branson knew its tourism could slide. So, just as the town once remade itself with country music theaters, it came up with additional attractions for the baby boomer generation. That includes the Landing.

When Terre Hauteans start flying to that place near the Arkansas-Missouri border in May, they’ll find a town well accustomed to fighting the battles to fund, develop and grow their community. It’s hard to imagine Branson stagnating.

“Once the snowball gets rolling, it’s easy to keep it going,” Mitchell said of economic growth. “It’s just getting it rolling in the first place.”

Mark Bennett can be reached at (812) 231-4377 or

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    March 12, 2010