A new Branson water park would cost $446 million and seeks tax abatement
A $446 million indoor-outdoor water park and resort is being proposed for a 302-acre spread at the western end of Branson's Highway 76 corridor.
An overview of the project obtained by the Branson Tri-Lakes News portrays an ambitious plan to add more than 1 million square feet of building space to a parcel of land immediately adjacent to a 1,534-acre state conservation area named for Ruth and Paul Henning, creators of "The Beverly Hillbillies."
Branson Adventures would have a 100,000-square-foot indoor water park and a resort with 350 guest suites, according to the overview. Other lodging options would be 215 cabins and 75 RV campsites, making a total of 640 units.
The park would have 55,000 square feet of outdoor water park and 30,000 square feet of meeting space.
Construction would begin next year and continue in phases until mid-2023.
David Cushman, principal of CP Branson LLC, the project developer, noted that Branson Adventures would also have amenities including restaurants, a spa facility, alpine bike and rope courses and a whitewater rafting course that could accommodate Olympic trials.
Cushman told the News-Leader Wednesday, "An indoor water park resort with a whitewater adventure rafting course — the two of those have never been done before together anywhere that we are aware of in the world, and there's nowhere in the United States that has that combination."
Cushman's firm has retained talent including Leisure Development Partners, a London-based company that has worked for "everyone from the Eiffel Tower to SeaWorld."
He is also working with Bob Montgomery, a former Herschend Family Entertainment official, and Scott Shipley, an Olympic champion turned engineer who designs whitewater experiences.
The models for Branson Adventures are similar facilities in Wisconsin Dells, Oklahoma and North Carolina. If it gets up and running on all cylinders, it could add 600,000 visitors annually, Cushman said.
He noted that the park will accommodate 200,000 people per year on site, meaning the balance of visitors to Branson Adventures will likely stay elsewhere in town if they are overnight guests.
Meanwhile, Branson officials frequently cite a 2016 estimate that Branson attracts about 9 million visitors per year, a figure approximately on par with tourism visits in Egypt.
On Monday, CP Branson will showcase its plan at a carefully arranged press conference just hours before it meets with an 11-member commission that will determine whether the Branson Adventures development may receive tax-increment financing.
A TIF plan, if one is voted in by the commission, would help pay for the project with tax abatements that run for a 23-year period.
Cushman said, "We've already passed the 'but-for' test," meaning the city of Branson has had outside analysts examine CP Branson's numbers for the project. Those analysts found that "but for" a TIF plan, "returns on the project would not be sufficient for debt and equity to make an investment, for capital markets to make an investment into the project," Cushman said.
The project overview detailed by the Branson Tri-Lakes News indicates half of the funding, about $249 million, is to come from the developer's private debt. Private equity would kick in about $80 million, with about a quarter of the capital coming through tax-exempt bonds at $109 million.
The project has full-throated support from key members of Taney County's establishment such as Branson Mayor Karen Best and Jonas Arjes, executive director of the Taney County Partnership economic-development organization.
But the prospect of TIF abatements for Branson Adventures has attracted skepticism on the part of some members of the community, among them Peter Marcellus, a medical doctor who is president of the Branson school board.
"If they're offering something totally different than everyone else, to draw new tourism to benefit everybody, that's one thing," Marcellus said. "But to just sort of siphon off from existing businesses that have been here for years, paying taxes, just doesn't seem fair."
"It doesn't seem to me that (Branson Adventures is) offering a lot of new things," Marcellus said. "Lodging and indoor water parks, I mean, we have those."
Marcellus noted that he and the school board, which has two representatives on the TIF commission along with representatives from other Taney County taxing districts, do not oppose development.
"I just don't like to see it cannibalizing other revenues that are here," he said.
Marcellus believes that past Branson-area projects that received TIF support, notably Branson Landing and Branson Hills, were oversold by their boosters.
"With other TIFs in years gone by, it's like 'oh, it's going to stimulate so much growth outside the TIF district and the school's going to benefit from that,'" Marcellus said, referring to normally taxed property value increases and economic activity generated as a spillover effect from economic development inside a TIF district like Branson Landing.
"Well, I don't think that's exactly happened at all," he said.
In contrast, Mayor Best believes that the city is striking an appropriate balance between economic development and protecting taxpayer interests.
Thursday, she told the News-Leader, "When looking at TIFs, the one thing we want to make absolutely sure of is that our schools are protected and our citizens protected as well."
Best added, "We scrutinize those numbers very closely to make sure it’s not going to detrimentally affect either of those."
Cushman's view is that the "TIF vehicle" does not deprive the school district or other public services of needed revenue.
"Well, that's a fallacy," he told the News-Leader. "Money is not being taken away from anyone. These revenues do not exist today. The property currently produces 80 percent of $150 in property tax each year."
Cushman said that the Branson Adventures TIF plan is designed to step down the tax abatements that the project receives over time in an attempt "to be sensitive to the school district."
In the first 10 years of the 23-year TIF plan, Cushman said the project is asking to fully capture "payment in lieu of taxes," or PILOTs.
Economic activity at Branson Adventures would essentially begin during year three, when the park is slated to open.
In years 11 to 19, Branson Adventures would capture 75 percent of the PILOTs.
In years 20 to 23, Branson Adventures would capture 50 percent. Thereafter, it would be fully taxed.
Many leaders in Taney County are willing to offer developers what are essentially discounted taxes because they're keen to get more year-round jobs in the Branson area.
The census shows Taney County's poverty rate is 17 percent — lower than Springfield's rate of 25.9 percent — while its median household income about $38,000, about $4,000 more than the figure for Springfield.
But Branson's economy relies heavily on service-industry jobs, many of them part-time. Unemployment surges each year after Christmas, and New Year's Day leads to a slow season lasting eight to 12 weeks.
"I am very excited about projects wanting to come to Branson that will provide year-round employment, which this project does," Best said.
"The beauty of this project is that most people don’t spend 24 hours a day at an indoor water park faciltity, so they’re open to other types of entertainment while in town," she said. "They'll want to go to shows, shop, they’ll dine at our restaurants."
Arjes, with the Taney County Partnership, and Cushman, the Branson Adventures developer, both pointed out that a two- or three-month slow season is an improvement over Branson's economic situation in the 1960s or '70s, when the slow season was half the year.
Cushman said 900 "full-time equivalent" jobs would be created to begin with, and the project would "ramp up" to about 1,200 as it became fully operational.
Full-time equivalents, or FTEs, are a measure of employment, but an FTE number does not tell what proportion of those jobs are regular full-time ones, with attached benefits such as health insurance and retirement planning.
Cushman could not specifically tell the News-Leader how many people at Branson Adventures would work regular full-time versus part-time.
He is very bullish about Branson Adventures, believing it will receive TIF support at the Monday hearing.
If the TIF commission gives the park a recommendation, then Branson's board of aldermen will have its first hearing on Branson Adventures on March 27.
Three of the aldermanic board's elected members, Mike Booth, Betsy Seay and Bob Simmons, were also appointed by the city to sit on the TIF commission making the decision.
As the Branson newspaper reported Dec. 1, outside legal counsel suggested the city not appoint its own aldermen to the TIF commission in order to avoid an appearance of conflict of interest, but Mayor Best decided to do so anyway after Branson's city attorney sought a second opinion, and provided his own, indicating that such appointments would not violate state law.
Aldermen approved the TIF appointments in a 5-0 vote.
Branson has a municipal election April 3.
Who is on the TIF commission that decides if Branson Adventures gets lower taxes?
City of Branson appointees:
- Mike Booth, Branson alderman
- Michael Pinkley, Branson Planning and Zoning commissioner
- Betsy Seay, Bransonalderwoman
- JeffSiefried - Branson/Lakes Area Chamber of Commerce president/CEO
- Bob Simmons, Branson alderman
- Greg Slavik, executive vice-president and COO of Earls Family Broadcasting
Taney County appointees:
- Brandon Williams, western county commissioner
- Sheila Wyatt, eastern county commissioner
Branson school district appointees:
- Roger Frieze, school board vice-president
- Jeff Smethers, school board member (replacing school board president Peter Marcellus, who was not able to attend the TIF commission's initial meeting)
Representing Taney County's five other taxing districts(Branson/Lakes Area Tourism Community Enhancement District, Ozarks Technical Community College, Senior Citizen Service Board, Taney County Health Department and the Taney County Ambulance District):
- Robert Griffith, Ozarks Technical Community College Table Rock Campus dean of academic and student affairs; Taney County Health Department board member
Source: City of Branson
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