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Branson, Mo., Developers Create New Airport

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Branson, Mo., Developers Create New Airport

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Branson, Mo., Developers Create New Airport

Branson, Mo., Developers Create New Airport

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A group of private investors is developing a commercial airport in Branson, Mo., creating the first privately developed and operated commercial airport in the United States. Branson hopes it will attract more tourists to its entertainment industry.

RENEE MONTAGNE, host:

Branson, Missouri thinks it has a lot to offer tourists: country music, Dick Clark's American Bandstand Theater, and a museum shaped like the Titanic. But Branson thinks some potential visitors are missing out on the fun because they think it's no fun to drive an hour from the airport - which gets us to our next story. A group of investors is building an airport mere minutes away. When it opens in two years, it will be one of the country's first privately operated commercial airports. Missy Shelton of member station KSMU reports.

MISSY SHELTON: It's unlikely that tourists coming to the country music shows and theme parks will notice anything different about the Branson Airport - except that it's a lot closer to Branson than the airport in Springfield. It's a difference that investors hoped will attract a lot more tourists, especially those who don't visit Branson because they live hundreds of miles away.

Steve Peet is CEO of Branson Airport LLC.

Mr. STEVE PEET (CEO and President, Branson Airport LLC): We have this intrinsic belief that there will be a large demand for air service, you know, direct into Branson. You know, Branson gets about eight million leisure tourists there a year now. We don't need to capture a very large percentage of that in order to run a proper operation.

SHELTON: Peet hopes that having commercial air service so close to Branson will entice people to fly there. City officials are embracing the idea to such an extent that they've agreed to pay the private investors more than $8 for each passenger arriving at the airport. Steve Peet says that revenue stream will help make the venture profitable.

Branson Mayor Raeanne Presley says she considers it to be a win-win for the city.

Mayor RAEANNE PRESLEY (Branson, Missouri): It wasn't as though we said we'd write them a check and see how it all worked out. If they bring passengers here, then we pay for those.

SHELTON: Private investors will cough up about $140 million to build the airport and infrastructure. Local county officials allowed the group to create a transportation district so they could issue tax-free bonds. Though the county initially has no control over the airport, it does own the actual property. And the private investors will hand over operation of the airport itself to the county in 45 years.

Taney County Commissioner Chuck Pennell says it's a good way to get an airport built.

Mr. CHUCK PENNELL (Taney County Commissioner): You know, they don't have airplanes landing yet, of course, but it's looking to be a very good possibility that this is going to happen and bring a benefit to us. County commission's confident that there is no risk to county government and this process.

SHELTON: Though privately developed and operated commercial aviation is a new concept here, it's relatively common in Europe for the private sector to be involved in commercial airports.

As development of the Branson Airport moves forward, the U.S. aviation industry is likely to pay attention. Of particular interest will be the ability of private investors to attract a commercial airline to Branson, especially with five major carriers already operating out of the Springfield airport, 50 miles up the road.

Spencer Dickerson, with the American Association of Airport Executive, says there could be other pitfalls.

Mr. SPENCER DICKERSON (Senior Executive Vice President, American Association of Airport Executive): Airports have been successful in this country because they've been under public ownership and public control. The question is would they be able to make sure that the transparency, openness, the fairness, access to everybody is there like it would be under a public operation?

SHELTON: Branson Airport CEO Steve Peet counters that he's serving the public good by building the airport. And he says market forces will ensure public accountability. If the fees the airport charges passengers are too high, they won't come. And, he says, with a profit-driven operation, the investors simply can't afford to let that happen.

For NPR News, I'm Missy Shelton.

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