STALLED SPIRIT: Acting Branson Administrator Stan Dobbins is sorting out a lack of funding for the Spirit of 76 project.
Spirit of 76 on hold
Branson’s Highway 76 revitalization project is on pause for as long as two years – but city officials say that may not be a bad thing.
In a near perfect storm of a failed state loan, a change in city administrator and a stalled community improvement district, the plan to overhaul the city’s main tourist artery is out of money.
“The project is going to get finished; I promise you that,” said Police Chief Stan Dobbins, who also is serving as interim city administrator after the board of aldermen fired former City Administrator Bill Malinen on May 24. “We started work without all the pieces nailed down, so the cart got before the horse.
“We’re working now to get that cart back where it belongs.”
Dubbed the Spirit of 76, the project is designed to improve Branson’s five-mile entertainment district corridor by adding wider pedestrian walkways, courtyards, landscaping, bicycle and wheelchair accessibility, an improved transportation and traffic control system, and mass transit options.
Branson originally caught the spirit in August 2014 when aldermen threw support behind $80 million in planned streetscape improvements. The funding puzzle included a $13.2 million Missouri Transportation Finance Corp. loan and the 76 Entertainment CID to shore up improvements along the famed strip.
Three years later, the project no longer qualifies for the state loan, the CID has yet to formalize its plans and the city of Branson has been paying for ongoing work out of its own coffers – but the well is running dry.
“We’re taking a pause to sort this out,” Dobbins said, noting it could be 18 months or two years. “I was just dumped into this two weeks ago. For some reason, it wasn’t a high priority before me, but I’m going to sort it out.”
First things first, the city needs repaid for the $16.2 million in work already underway.
Director of Finance Jamie Rouch said Branson plans to close on a $12 million lease purchase agreement with a financial institution by June 30.
“It’s mostly known as a certificate of participation,” she said. “Basically, we will use the future work as collateral. The lease, so to speak, is on the collateral items we’re using once they are complete.”
The $12 million loan uses the value of future improvements as collateral for the loan. It also includes $1.9 million in needed water and sewer infrastructure unrelated to the 76 project.
The first stages of the revitalization – which includes underground and streetscape work around attractions such as the Titanic Museum – were set to be funded through the $13.2 million Missouri Transportation Finance Corp. loan.
Rouch said the city applied last year and was approved, but then things changed.
“Though it comes from the state, it’s funded through the federal government and there are guidelines for use of federal money,” she said. “We’d been told we met those restrictions, but in January the engineering group informed us the project was no longer eligible.
“So, it wasn’t that the loan fell through because of the (Missouri Department of Transportation’s) budget problems, it was that we didn’t qualify for it anymore.”
When the city budget is under control, officials can concentrate on sorting out the CID.
“It is extremely important to define who is paying for what,” Dobbins said.
Branson Communications Manager Jennifer Langford said work on segment three – formerly know as Phase 1A – will wrap by the end of the month. At that point, all work will cease.
“It was always the plan to stop work in the summer so as not to interfere with the businesses during the busy season,” she said. “It just won’t resume in the fall.”
There are 33 businesses in segment three and 317 businesses in the CID’s five-mile proposed boundaries – all of which support the taxing district, but have yet to finalize the co-operative agreement.
“The city pays for the infrastructure, the roadways and sidewalks, but something like a grand entrance onto the property is the responsibility of the business owner,” Langford said. “This all needs to be formalized in a legal document. It should have been finalized before the work started.”
Segment three already is collecting the added tax, expected to bring in about $400,000 annually.
Dobbins said he has meetings in the works to hammer out details with the remaining business owners.
The Titanic Museum is in segment three and co-owner Mary Kellogg-Joslyn has been a proponent of the CID from the start. She acknowledges communication from the city is improving, but has been fractured.
“I’ve built ships – I know there are issues you have to work out,” she said. “There was some surprise and frustration with the lack of financial details, but I think they’ve worked that out and will be open going forward. We get almost weekly updates on areas such as traffic flow.
“Change is hard and people don’t always like it, but this is good for the city. It is good for the next generation of Branson.”
Streetscape improvements have been in the works since 2010, when the community known for its theaters, restaurants and hotels began its long-term planning process under the moniker Community Plan 2030. Business and community participants broadly expressed a need to revitalize the aging strip of highway that routinely backs up with traffic in the summertime.
In late 2012, city leaders selected Kansas City-based Cook, Flatt & Strobel Engineers Inc. to develop plans for improving the foot traffic on 76 Country Boulevard. Among other issues, the engineers were tasked with addressing a reduction in the number of overhead electric lines that clutter the landscape, reducing the number of entrances and exits on 76 and creating areas for trolley stops and crosswalks. Roughly a third of the five-mile strip comprises entrances and exits, but only a handful of crosswalks existed.
In May 2016, 94 percent of property owners within the CID voted to approve a 1 percent sales tax. Construction work began late last summer.
Last month, the Branson Board of Aldermen voted in closed session to oust nearly four-year City Administrator Malinen. A reason behind the firing was not disclosed.
In the live entertainment capital of the world, the show must go on. Next on Dobbins’ docket is a meeting with MoDOT to secure a deed for the road.
“Right now, MoDOT still owns that street,” Langford said. “We’ve been doing all this work and investing in it, but the city doesn’t even officially have the deed.”
Going forward, officials also will seek to annex an additional 235 properties into the CID to produce the necessary revenue for the full scope.
“Conservatively, that will produce about $4 million a year,” Rouch said. “The remainder will be made up through a special revenue bond the city will borrow of $30 million to $35 million.”
The no-tax-increase bond would need to go before voters for approval.
Rouch said the tourism tax fund is capped at $56 million and though the city will have that paid off by 2023, it can’t add to it without a vote.
Original estimates put the project’s scope at $80 million, but that wasn’t the complete picture.
“The $80 million was just for the sidewalk and roads; that didn’t consider things like power and water,” Dobbins said.
Rouch said the target is ever-changing at this point, but offered a breakdown: Add to the $80 million roughly $16 million for water, $12 million for electric work and the $16 million already spent.
“It’s sitting about $120 million right now,” she said.
Dobbins said the task is daunting going forward, but he’s bound and determined to get the ducks in a row.
“This is just a pause to get the cart back behind the horse. It’s wrong to move forward and spend community money like this without the proper agreements in place,” he said. “I may be old and crusty, but you don’t try to do something until you have the money in the bank to pay for it.”