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Titanic museum drops anchor in Pigeon Forge

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Branson-based Cedar Bay Entertainment LLC has dropped anchor in the eastern Tennessee tourism hub of Pigeon Forge for its second Titanic attraction - a $25 million endeavor that will be larger and more interactive than its sister ship in the Ozarks.

Construction on Titanic Pigeon Forge, which began in January, is expected to wrap up in the first quarter of 2010, and the attraction will welcome its first guests in April, said Cedar Bay President John Joslyn.

Branson-based Frank Turner Construction Co. is the general contractor, and Springfield-based Butler, Rosenbury & Partners Inc. provided architecture and engineering services for the 30,000-square-foot, half-scale replica of the fated luxury ocean liner at the center of the 1997 blockbuster flick starring Leonardo DiCaprio and Kate Winslet.

"Titanic has a great mystique," Joslyn said. "Everybody's curious about it and wants to know more."

Joslyn and wife Mary Kellogg-Joslyn opened the first Titanic museum in 2006 on Branson's main strip. A second Titanic attraction in Pigeon Forge was part of Cedar Bay's original business plan, John Joslyn said. The family-friendly vacation spot in the foothills of the Smoky Mountains has many similarities with Branson, he said, noting that both are "rubber-tire markets" that predominantly pull in cost-conscious visitors who travel by car.

Pigeon Forge -- home to Dolly Parton's ever-expanding theme park Dollywood - and Branson do have one distinct difference. While Pigeon Forge has fewer permanent residents than Branson, the town of 5,800 is inundated with some 11 million tourists each year. Branson, in contrast, sees about 8 million visitors annually. Cedar Bay's projected first-year attendance at Titanic Pigeon Forge: 750,000 people.

Even though sour economic conditions have taken a toll on the travel and tourism industry in recent months, Joslyn said the family vacation remains intact. But with dialed-back spending, affordability is paramount, he said, recalling family vacations from years past.

"Maybe you stayed in a hotel. Maybe you stayed in a motel. Maybe you stayed in a cabin. Sometimes you pitched a tent. But you always went on vacation," he said.

Cruising along

Joslyn said he's pleased with the pace of construction on Titanic Pigeon Forge, which includes an adjoining 5,000-square-foot ticket office and gift shop.

The ship's dual reddish-orange funnels are now visible atop the attraction's metal exoskeleton. With the recent completion of ironwork, construction crews are preparing to install sheetrock, Joslyn said, adding that the outer shell of the ship's hull should materialize next month.

Titanic Pigeon Forge is situated on about six acres at the north end of the tourist town's busy parkway near the Black Bear Jamboree and WonderWorks, an educational attraction housed in a building that looks as though it's been turned upside-down.

Joslyn said the new Titanic will improve on its Branson counterpart's success by incorporating an oversized 3-D model of the ship and an interactive feature that will give visitors a glimpse of ship fragments embedded in the sea floor as well as "Tot-tanic," an indoor play area.

The building's size also offers plenty of extra space for staff members and storage, he added.

"We have very limited back of house here (in Branson)," Joslyn said. "Over there, everything is built into place. ... We have two stories of offices built into that ship."

John Miller, vice president of structural engineering at Butler, Rosenbury & Partners, said the design team spent about six months drawing up the ship's plans, which relied heavily on those supplied by a German man who built a full-scale Titanic replica. The trick then became making the ship into a functional museum, he added.

"We're not building a ship; we're building a building and adapting the building techniques to make it resemble the ship," Miller said.

"I think one of the most challenging things is getting the front hall the correct shape with the different curvatures."

A financing feat

Joslyn said Cedar Bay is financing the project through a mix of equity and debt, primarily a $19.5 million loan through Citizens National Bank in Pigeon Forge. The U.S. Department of Agriculture Rural Development program guaranteed 60 percent of the loan, or about $11.7 million, said Dan Beasley, director of Rural Development business programs in Tennessee. Beasley said the loan guarantee, while thought to be one-of-a-kind, meets USDA criteria: job creation for a community with a population of less than 50,000.

Titanic Pigeon Forge will employ about 75 people.

Joslyn praised Citizens National, which is not affiliated with the Springfield bank of the same name, for its commitment to the Titanic project in the face of a shaky economy. He said the bank - recommended by Herschend Family Entertainment Group officials - was specifically chosen because of its experience financing tourist attractions.

"That bank never blinked," Joslyn said. "They never ever paused. ... We closed it, and there was never ever a hiccup."

Leon Downey is among those looking forward to the opening of Titanic Pigeon Forge; he's executive director of the city's Department of Tourism.

Through the end of September, tourism tax revenues in Pigeon Forge were down 8 percent, said Downey, who visited Titanic Branson late last year.

"It blew me away," he said. "It's a first-class attraction."

If the popularity of a preview center at Titanic Pigeon Forge is any indication, Downey said Cedar Bay shouldn't have any problem hitting its projections.

"I don't have any doubt that they're going to be extremely successful here," he said. "People are already talking about it. They're building interest every day."

As for the Joslyns, they're already onto the next project, which will somehow incorporate the Casino Queen riverboat. Cedar Bay purchased the gambling boat - docked on the Mississippi River in East St. Louis for 15 years - for an undisclosed amount a year ago.[[In-content Ad]]

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