NOEL KING, HOST:
This summer, millions of vacationers are expected to visit Branson, Mo., to see acts like Tony Orlando and the Oak Ridge Boys. Summer is a boom time for Branson, but for many of the people who keep the good times rolling there, life is far from a holiday. Alex Smith reports from member station KCUR.
ALEX SMITH, BYLINE: The main strip of Branson is an old Ozark highway lined with miles and miles of miniature golf, bumper cars, fudge shops, custard stands and music venues.
UNIDENTIFIED SINGERS: (Singing) There's a bad moon on the rise.
SMITH: Shannon Cronin is a waitress here and says she loves being part of the action.
SHANNON CRONIN: You get to know them even just with five minutes of talking. Where are you from? Why are you here? You kind of get to escape when you go to work.
SMITH: At the end of the day, Cronin returns to a musty extended-stay motel where she and her three children and pets live. Their one room has a single king-sized bed where the family sleeps together. For a kitchen, they have a mini fridge and a microwave. Outside, drug dealers and prostitutes stalk the parking lot. Cronin says raising her kids in seedy motels like this for the last six years has changed the way she thinks about parenting.
CRONIN: You get scared about whether they should even not be in your hands for fear of what they could find or see.
SMITH: Branson's motel trap starts with the promise of a better life in a rural region where jobs are scarce. In the summer, when the vast majority of tourists visit, businesses can't find enough workers to fill all the seasonal, low-wage positions. But because almost any apartment or house is rented for top dollar by tourists, there's little low-cost housing for workers. Once the seasonal jobs dry up in the winter, so do paychecks. Unemployment rates rise to three or four times the state average, so workers like Carla Perry have to stay in motels that run about $500 a month.
CARLA PERRY: You get stuck in, like, this big whirlwind that's going down the toilet, and it's just sucking you down.
(SOUNDBITE OF DOG BARKING)
UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #1: Hi, would you like a meal?
UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #2: Yes.
UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #1: Hey, killer.
SMITH: One rainy evening, volunteers with the nonprofit group Jesus Was Homeless are knocking on motel doors to hand out free sack lunches. Since the group was started 10 years ago, average hospitality wages have barely budged from $10 an hour. Now that tourism has swelled to more than 8 million people a year, worker advocates say the city should provide low-income housing and employers should increase wages, but there's little incentive for that to happen in a town that bends over backwards to accommodate businesses. Stan Dobbins is Branson's city administrator.
STAN DOBBINS: The employees have to understand that the employer is running a business, and they're trying to keep the doors open.
SMITH: Dobbins thinks one solution to Branson's poverty is to attract new industry, but that remains a struggle.
PERRY: Hey, buddy. How y'all doing?
SMITH: On a muggy summer afternoon, Carla Perry is greeting kids playing outside Shannon Cronin's motel. Perry has moved on from motel life and now works to help others transition out. But Perry says that even for the most motivated people, the stain of motel life can be hard to wash away.
PERRY: When you do go to get a job or do something different, you're tattered, you're broken, and the smell of poverty is very relevant around here. And so it's really hard for people to see past the outer shell to know that that person just needs a chance.
SMITH: With Perry's help, Shannon Cronin and her kids are leaving this motel. They got a government housing voucher and found an apartment to rent for the next two years. For NPR News, I'm Alex Smith. *
(SOUNDBITE OF GIANTS' "FISHERMAN'S PRAYER")
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