The latest portion of a yearslong revitalization effort in Branson for its high-profile West 76 Country Boulevard is back in motion after a pause since 2020.
Crews are removing power lines as part of a $1.9 million project to bury utilities in a portion of the 5-mile entertainment district corridor. The work by White River Valley Electric Cooperative Inc., CenturyLink, Suddenlink and Sho-Me Technologies LLC began in early January, said Keith Francis, the city of Branson’s director of Public Works and Engineering.
“The undergrounding is supposed to be done by the end of April, weather permitting,” Francis said, adding the project’s coverage area generally runs from Presleys’ Country Jubilee to the Branson Ferris Wheel.
Undergrounding work is funded through a 1% sales tax collected within the 76 Entertainment Community Improvement District. The 76ECID spans roughly 5 miles from Shepherd of the Hills Expressway along West 76 Country Boulevard east to the Branson Auto & Farm Museum. The Branson Board of Aldermen in 2020 approved the district’s expansion to 973 acres from 68, comprising six defined areas, according to past Springfield Business Journal reporting.
At the time of the expansion, city and 76ECID officials expected the 1% tax to bring in roughly $4.5 million annually, beginning in 2021 – over 10 times the $400,000 in revenues it generated annually since the start of collections in 2016. However, last year’s CID revenue exceeded projections at $4.9 million, said 76ECID Board Chair Gail Myer. The total was part of a record-breaking year for Branson, as the city’s tourism tax brought in $16.8 million in 2021, beating its prior record by nearly 24%.
The expansion allowed work to continue for the highway’s $80 million revitalization project. Improvements in the district include road configuration changes, upgrading utilities and landscaping, and adding lighting, pedestrian walkways and way-finding signs, officials said. Project funding utilizes sales tax revenues generated by the CID, as well as the city’s tourism tax designated for infrastructure.
Ann McDowell, a spokesperson for the 76ECID, said the $80 million price tag was estimated several years ago and will likely increase as the project continues. There’s no set timeline for the project’s completion, and the sales tax doesn’t sunset, according to past SBJ reporting.
“We’ve had estimates that construction [costs] are up 30% from where it was a couple of years ago,” she said.
Work was paused two years ago as the next project phase required design and construction document development, along with time for tax revenues to grow in the expanded CID area, officials said.
Francis said the city and CID board’s goal is to improve the aesthetic and safety experience for visitors on Highway 76.
“It’s to get the unsightly power lines underground and, from a safety standpoint, is to make a safer walkway for all the pedestrians down there,” Francis said, noting sidewalks in the segment from Presleys’ to the Ferris wheel have been widened to a minimum of eight feet. “The sidewalks are offset with greenspace between the back of the curb and the edge of the sidewalk. It’s to make them more aesthetically pleasing.”
Tammy Zachary, co-owner of barbecue restaurant Gettin’ Basted, which opened its first brick-and-mortar location in Branson five years ago, agreed that aesthetics are good to improve. However, she remembers when the project’s sidewalk improvements and installation of new water mains in 2018 were taking place near the eatery’s former location at 3115 W. 76 Country Blvd.
“Our driveways were completely torn up,” she said. “People couldn’t get in and out of our parking lot.”
Gettin’ Basted moved to 2845 W. 76 Country Blvd. later that year – a decision that Zachary said wasn’t impacted by the ongoing work but rather a need for more space. The restaurant is still in the district but just outside the current undergrounding work area and likely won’t have to deal with any project construction for the foreseeable future, as officials said the next focus area is west of the Ferris wheel.
Still, Zachary said she isn’t looking forward to whenever the work is back outside their eatery.
“I’m honestly very nervous when they reach our location where we’re at now,” she said. “I’m hoping that it’s done during an off time. We’re pretty much busy from March 1 through Dec. 31.”
While she appreciates the efforts to improve the highway, she said the current aesthetic on the street hasn’t deterred restaurant customers.
“It doesn’t add value to our properties, and it doesn’t add value to our businesses by them doing it,” she said. “People are coming regardless if utilities are above ground or below ground.”
Francis said requests for qualifications were issued about a month ago for the design of revitalization work for the two segments of the CID area west of the Ferris wheel, which include attractions such as White Water and The Butterfly Palace. The city received three proposals and selected Great River Engineering Inc., he said, noting negotiations are ongoing for a scope of work and design cost.
Construction in those areas likely won’t start before early 2023, McDowell said.
“With tourism, we like to do as much construction in the off-season as we can,” she said.
While the overall project price is likely to rise, McDowell said the 76ECID and city want to remain conscientious of managing money carefully.
“We’re taking it a lot more conservatively, one chunk at a time and just making sure we keep moving forward,” she said.
The Bureau of Labor Statistics reported in May the all-items inflation index surged 8.6% over the past year, the highest increase since 1981.