A nearly $446 million proposal cleared its first municipal hurdle toward a new whitewater rafting and water park attraction on several hundred acres now deemed as blight off the Branson strip.
The city’s Tax Increment Financing Commission voted 7-4 on March 5 to recommend approval of a TIF plan for the proposed development dubbed Branson Adventures, sending the plan to the Branson Board of Aldermen for review March 27.
Public funding – delivered via tax-exempt bonds backed by local property and sales taxes – totals roughly $115.6 million for the proposed development. According to the TIF plan submitted by developer CP Branson LLC, the funding covers about 25 percent of project costs.
Meanwhile, the rolling 300 acres of undeveloped land where the attraction would stand has been deemed as an “economic or social liability” and a “menace” to public health and safety, according to a land appraisal memo accompanying the plan.
Two main themes emerged from those who voted down the plan during the city’s recent meeting, said Jeff Seifried, a TIF commission member who supported the project.
Seifried, also president and CEO of the Branson/Lakes Area Chamber of Commerce, said the first issue is more obvious: potential negative impacts to public funding, namely whether school money might falter in covering the cost of additional students during the coming years.
Nearly $80 million in tax increment financing for the attraction, if approved, would come from sales and property taxes potentially imposed by and diverted from a related community improvement district for up to 23 years, according to the TIF plan.
The proposed district would cover the project site, which sits directly west of State Highway 76 and north of State Highway 376.
Another roughly $18.6 million in supplemental funding would come from city sales tax coffers – including funding potentially pledged to the project from general, transportation and tourism sales taxes, according to the TIF plan.
The public funds are one issue identified by Branson TIF commissioner Betsy Seay, a local business owner who also serves on the Branson Board of Aldermen.
“I still support the project,” Seay said, noting qualms such as conflicting average daily rates for a hotel planned within the park and whether the developer really needs the city to cover 25 percent of the costs.
“I just want to be able to really sharpen our pencils and look at what this will cost the city and the school district,” Seay added, questioning whether the promised economic impact would cover those costs. “If it does, then OK. If it doesn’t, then we need to revisit the plan.”
The proposed development would sit on 302 acres, roughly adjacent to the 1,500-acre Henning Conservation Area on the east and Table Rock Lake to the southwest. Silver Dollar City is north and west of the proposed site, while the Branson strip runs to its south and east. The developer behind CP Branson is David Cushman, a Branson businessman who also owns Cushman Properties LLC.
In 2006, Cushman attempted to develop the vacant acreage through TIF funding. His plans then called for a $600 million resort dubbed Pinnacle Falls, which included an 80,000-square-foot indoor water park and a $40 million-$50 million aquarium, according to Springfield Business Journal archives.
Branson City Administrator Stan Dobbins, a firm supporter of the new plan, said the acreage currently generates about $17 in annual property tax revenue.
He said the planned development could grow that sum to upwards of $12 million annually, with excess revenues for the project going first to the school district.
“There will be some spillover, basically some extra funds, if this goes well, once the bills are paid so to speak,” he said.
“Basically, it’s a waterfall,” Dobbins noted of routing excess funding. “The city, in our negotiations, insisted that the school district be placed at the top of that waterfall, so when there are extra tax revenues, those revenues will go to the school district first.”
Branson School District Superintendent Brad Swofford said 70 percent of district funding comes solely from local property taxes. The two Branson School Board members on the TIF Commission, Jeff Smethers and Roger Frieze, voted against the proposed TIF plan.
Business and blight
A second objection noted during the meeting, Seifried said, centered on whether the development would attract new visitors or simply siphon off patrons from existing businesses, such as neighboring hotels or Silver Dollar City’s nearby White Water park.
Dobbins said the proposal for Branson Adventures includes an outdoor mountain biking trail, a 4-mile customizable whitewater rafting course, an indoor water park and the hotel. Projections indicate the park could draw 400,000-600,000 annual visitors.
“To say this is a water park is doing it an injustice,” he said. “There is a hotel there, but it’s actually part of the water park. If people go to stay there, they’re going to be attending the water park. It’s not like it’s a hotel people are just going to go stay at to then go to other areas of Branson.”
The hotel, Dobbins said, would lodge up to 200,000 annual visitors at full capacity, with the rest spilling into the rest of Branson and surrounding area.
“People keep going, ‘Oh, my God, they’re going to take all the restaurant business; they’re going to take all the hotel business,’” he said. “No, they’re not. They’re going to bring a whole lot of business to the city.”
To qualify for TIF funding, the undeveloped acreage would be considered as blight.
Two Kansas-based certified general real estate appraisers, Kenneth Jaggers and James Gilbertson, determined the land “constitutes an economic or social liability,” according to a Dec. 7 memo from JLL Valuation & Advisory Services LLC.
Per Missouri TIF statute, the memo qualified the acreage as having a “defective or inadequate street layout, unsanitary or unsafe conditions, deterioration of site improvements and improper subdivision or platting.”
Those issues, according to the memo, resulted in the land specifically being a “menace” to public health and safety.
“That seems like an odd term to me,” Dobbins said. “I don’t know how it’s a menace, but OK. It is, I guess, defined that way by statute, according to the TIF regulations.”
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