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Opinion: Billon-dollar plans hard to live up to

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Finally, some closure in the Indian Ridge development.

From day one, with the announcement of a billion-dollar development plan, the project was a bit of a head-scratcher in Branson West. In late May, the defunct development culminated with guilty pleas for real estate fraud by two developers associated with the project.

Previously, it was littered with environmental violations, financial fallout from a failed bank, numerous contractor liens and a land auction. In the recent guilty pleas, Indian Ridge point man and Springfield businessman Jim Shirato was not a party.

Indian Ridge wasn’t the only billion-dollar project planned for the Branson market during the mid-2000s, nor was it the only plan not to materialize. It has company in Argonaut Midwest Holdings’ two “sanctuary” developments near Hollister – The Sanctuary on the Lake and The Sanctuary on the Greens – together projected to cost $1 billion but withheld from their full potential.

Indian Ridge seemed to hold to the notion that if it seems too good to be true, it probably is too good to be true. Some of the specs: 390-unit hotel (by comparison, Chateau on the Lake has 358 rooms), a 145,000-square-foot water park (Splash Country is 40,000 square feet on the Branson strip) and 2,400 condominiums (Branson West’s population was 408 at the time). Add in retail stores, a marina, golf course and Indian history museum, and the project was estimated to create roughly 400-600 jobs. Branson is always looking to boost nonseasonal employment, and year-round housing was predicted to hold up to 7,800 residents.

It was designed to stand as a bookend complementing the $420 million Branson Landing on the east side of Highway 76 – “the yin to the yang of Branson” as early architectural consultant Bo Hagerman put it.

Indian Ridge got kicked off in grand fashion. Yelling into a bullhorn, Gov. Matt Blunt directed the first excavators to start their engines at the January 2006 groundbreaking. The city subsequently received a $1 million wastewater infrastructure grant from the state Department of Natural Resources, and major roadway improvements also were in order.

Of course, the grand plans on 900 acres overlooking Table Rock Lake arrived near the peak of the real estate bubble and just before it burst. The project only got into the first phase – about a dozen residential structures, to be exact.

Three months in, the first lawsuit was thrown by an Overland Park, Kan., developer claiming partner status given certain financing he provided Shirato through Columbian Bank & Trust. This was the bank shut down by federal regulators in 2008, essentially halting any development. Columbian Bank was the second hard-luck domino to fall on Indian Ridge.

Then, Shirato was charged with polluting Table Rock, and he eventually paid $125,000 for violating the state’s Clean Water Law.

Right now, Indian Ridge is a ghost town in the Wild, Wild Branson West. If you haven’t seen it, it’s worth a peek next time you drive on Highway 76 between Silver Dollar City and Highway 13 that cuts through Branson West. The architectural designs are eye-catching – and equally captivating is the feeling that a builder just dropped his hammer and walked away the other day.

But it all started 10 years ago. Today, you can still see the potential. Shirato’s vision was not off point. The swath of land rolls into a valley leading into the lake. The scenery was enough for one Maryland family to commit to buying five lots and relocating their title insurance agency. Another reminder of how one failed plan leads to another.

I’m not saying the fraud implicates Shirato. He was working with multiple developers to juggle the development aspects. Getting connected with David Drake and Donald Snider Jr., the Colorado developers who pleaded guilty to bank fraud and money laundering, was a regrettable move.

But the Indian Ridge plans have been fraught with mishaps – some he’s accountable to and others of tough circumstances. In the end, Shirato’s company is out roughly $25 million on infrastructure and land acquisitions for the upended development.

I’m left with this: When a billion-dollar plan falls, it falls hard and the crash can be heard from afar.

But I’m no longer scratching my head.

Springfield Business Journal Editor Eric Olson can be reached at eolson@sbj.net.[[In-content Ad]]

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