The owners of Branson’s Grand Palace have water on their mind for a new project at the long-vacant theater and they’re betting on tax-increment financing to make it a reality.
Aquarium at the Boardwalk is the proposed attraction from Los Angeles-based Kuvera Partners, which also owns another Branson venue, the Hollywood Wax Museum Entertainment Center. The ownership group in 2014 purchased the Grand Palace property, 2700 W. 76 Country Blvd., for $2.7 million, according to past Springfield Business Journal reporting. The theater closed in 2008.
The project would transform the property into a 46,000-square-foot aquarium attraction with a boardwalk theme that takes visitors “under the sea” for views of marine animals, according to a news release.
Kuvera Partners spokeswoman Aileen Stein said the company presented an overview of the project to the Branson Board of Aldermen on Aug. 23. A separate TIF proposal was submitted to the city earlier in August, said Jamie Rouch, city of Branson finance director, and it’s under review by city legal counsel and advisers. She said the review process typically takes three to five weeks.
Stein and other Kuvera officials declined SBJ’s interview request. In an email, she said the company is hopeful the city would approve the request next year to enable the project to be completed by March 2020. She added the TIF approval is vital for the project to continue, as it is not economically feasible without it.
She declined to provide an estimated budget for the attraction. In the event the TIF proposal is denied, she said no other alternate plan is in development at the site.
Following the process
Kuvera’s request is the second major TIF project reviewed by the city this year.
The proposed $446 million Branson Adventures resort financing plan was denied 5-1 by the board of aldermen in April. Branson Adventures sought over $115 million in public funds, largely through property and sales tax revenues, according to past SBJ reporting.
The TIF denial left Branson Adventures considering its options, as lead developer David Cushman of CP Branson LLC said in early May the next step for the project was uncertain. He said at the time plans could include downsizing the funding proposal or taking the project to another city. A significant portion of the project involves construction of a 465,000-square-foot indoor water park and a whitewater rafting course.
Cushman did not respond to numerous messages requesting an interview.
Rouch said the city’s TIF review process has no specific timeline and can take months or even years to complete, depending on factors such as when public hearings can be scheduled.
For Branson, she said TIF proposals must have a redevelopment plan approved by the aldermen after a recommendation from the Tax Increment Financing Commission. Rouch said the commission becomes part of the process after the TIF plan analysis – the phase the proposed Aquarium at the Boardwalk is currently in. Part of the analysis is to determine if the area proposed would not be developed unless the incentive is approved, which she said is the “but for” provision. Any development approved through the TIF process can utilize the financing for up to 23 years.
In between the TIF plan analysis and a final vote by the board of aldermen is a TIF Commission public hearing, Rouch said.
“We have an engaged economic development attorney and an adviser who will give their recommendations,” she said. “The developer also gets a chance to speak at the hearings.”
Rouch said the presentation Kuvera Partners made to the aldermen Aug. 23 was part of a study session – a new element in the process. She said the Aquarium at the Boardwalk is the first TIF proposal to have the developer present ahead of the city’s financial analysis.
“It’s important for the board to know what the concept is,” she said. “It was put into the process for more transparency.”
Aldermen Bob Simmons and Rick Castillon did not return messages by press time seeking comment about the aquarium project.
When it comes to TIFs, Patrick Tuohey, director of municipal policy at the free-market think tank Show-Me Institute, isn’t a fan.
Tuohey, who is based in Kansas City, traveled to Springfield Sept. 5 to discuss TIFs at a Show-Me Institute event at the Frisco Building, 3253 E. Chestnut Expressway. He said he’s frequently asked what is a good TIF.
“I don’t know the answer between good TIF and bad TIF,” he said prior to the Sept. 5 event, noting too many get approved.
Citing the 2017 Missouri Department of Revenue report on TIFs, Tuohey said there have been 79 TIFs approved in St. Louis and 23 TIFs in Kansas City since 2004. In that same time period, one TIF was approved in Branson and two in Springfield, according to the report.
He said the standard for what is considered blight has become meaningless and that companies shouldn’t be rewarded because they haven’t kept their property maintained.
“It’s tough to know beforehand which ones are going to be good or bad,” Tuohey said.
While not knowledgeable about the Aquarium at the Boardwalk project, Tuohey said he was among those testifying in April against the Branson Adventures project. In his testimony, Tuohey said TIFs should only be used to address real and harmful blight that stops private investment from taking place. In that project, he saw the developer having a bad idea and needing public subsidies to make it a good idea.
“If there was such a big demand, they shouldn’t need subsidies,” he said. “Private investors should see it and jump aboard.”
However, Mike Hynes, a Branson-area resident and consultant in the aviation industry, saw the Branson Adventures proposal differently. He said he attended the public meetings regarding the project and was disappointed in the vote against the TIF plan.
“I think TIFs have value in general,” he said. “Financially and community-wise, that TIF was a good idea. If I were (Cushman), I would revise it and resubmit it.”
Hynes said he supports the Aquarium at the Boardwalk project, but he’s not sure a TIF is the right way to go. He doubts the Grand Palace area is blighted. Although he said it might need major renovations inside, he said if “you went by the theater right now, it wouldn’t pass my smell test.”
“But I’m in favor of changing it to an aquarium,” he said. “I think it would be great for the community. If there’s a better use for the building, I’m for it 100 percent.”
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