Ozark Tourist Town, Branson, Mo., Debates How To Diversify
STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:
And now we go to Missouri were roughly seven and a half million people visit the tourist town of Branson every year. They mostly come to listen to country music, visit the theme park and take in the events that go on in Branson every year. But Branson is facing pressures from a changing economy and changing demographic. From member station KSMU, Scott Harvey reports.
SCOTT HARVEY, BYLINE: Joe Tinoco escorts guess to their seats inside Hamner's Variety Theater. Home to the magnificent seven Variety show. Where seven performers sing and dance to songs from the past seven decades.
(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)
JOE TINOCO: 200 costume changes, so it's just a super high energy fast moving show. It travels around every decade something for everybody basically.
HARVEY: Despite its popularity the show had its financial struggles during the recession. Those are played out in a just-released documentary "We Always Lie To Strangers", a five- year behind-the-scenes look at Branson. Here Tinoco has the lay off one of the cast members.
(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "WE ALWAYS LIE TO STRANGERS")
TINOCO: You wanted an answer tonight and of course it's going to be you. We wish to God we were doing better and we could keep a full cast, that's the bottom line.
HARVEY: Just down the street there's AJ's one-stop convenience store. They've cut staff too.
AMY WILLIAMS: Five to seven years ago you would see this time of year that whole road, you'd see that filled with buses, along with down the road filled with buses.
HARVEY: That Amy Williams she's the manager.
WILLIAMS: The buses aren't coming here anymore. They're going other places because we don't offer the things that other places do.
HARVEY: She'd like the city to bring in more big name performers and legalize gambling. But some of the leaders of this Ozark tourist town of over 10,000 say they are already diversifying bringing in music from Motown to pop rock. And it's not just music Branson has lakes, shopping centers, shows like "Acrobats of China" and an up coming PGA tournament. And there's Silver Dollar City, an 1880's theme park, recently invested $10 million in a wooden roller coaster. Jake (Ph) Gibler and his wife brought their three children from Kansas City.
JAKE GIBLER: On the way over I was actually telling my wife, they've made it where you can be two years old or you can be 99 and it's got all you need for a great experience.
HARVEY: Yet numbers provided by the Branson Lakes Area Chamber of Commerce show nearly four out of five visitors are Baby boomers or older. That worries Missouri State University economics professor Doctor David Mitchell.
DAVID MITCHELL: People have this annoying habit of dying off.
HARVEY: While he forecasts the city's tourism will grow over the few years Mitchell is worried about the 20 year projection. And he has another concern -- Southwest airlines citing insufficient demand is leaving Branson Airport in June. For Mitchell it's a sign of why the city needs to diversify its offerings, so that Branson can become more than just a regional draw.
MITCHELL: People are getting in their cars and saying let's drive to Branson, but people are not getting on a plane and say let's fight to Branson.
HARVEY: Back inside Hamner's Theater. the Magnificent Sevens Joe Tinoco says he's happy with the diversity of shows and events. Tinoco adds that he hopes the city's core values can continue to drive tourism. Noting his love for patriotic music.
TINOCO: You know supporting our Vets, supporting our country, supporting the Lord you know what I mean, and passing that on. I think that's huge for this town.
HARVEY: For now that type of entertainment still resonates with current Branson visitors and will be a hot ticket item as the tourism season gets into full swing this Memorial Day weekend. For NPR news on Scott Harvey.
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