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MILLING AROUND: Ozark Mill on the Finley River is a source for local conjecture. Johnny Morris acquired adjoining land in recent years, but a Bass Pro spokesman says development isn’t a priority.
MILLING AROUND: Ozark Mill on the Finley River is a source for local conjecture. Johnny Morris acquired adjoining land in recent years, but a Bass Pro spokesman says development isn’t a priority.

With other Bass Pro attractions in progress, mill waits in the wings

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A search for the most notable property owner in Ozark leads to the historic Ozark Mill on the Finley River.

The owner is Johnny Morris. The Bass Pro Shops founder has had the mill and some surrounding land in his possession since 1993. Company officials say the intent is to preserve it for a future project.

So every now and then, people in Ozark scratch the old question: What’s Morris going to do with it?

Even though Morris has added multiple adjoining parcels in recent years, a spokesman says the answer is nothing yet.

The ownership entity – organized as Ozark Mill LLC and sharing the same address as Bass Pro’s Springfield headquarters, 2500 E. Kearney St. – has roughly 32.45 acres around the mill, according to Christian County assessor records. Nearly half of the land has come from five purchases made between December 2012 and March of this year.

“We always hear rumors they are going to do something, but we don’t know what,” said Mark Wheeler, owner of Wheeler Gardens & Florist just down the hill from the mill, a tenant of Morris and his companies since the early 1990s.

Wheeler said he was aware of the recent purchases, including a former MFA Oil location across the road from the mill on Jackson Street and residential lots farther north on Fourth Street. On internet message boards, conjecture abounds about a retail center, a bakery or a bed and breakfast as potential for the mill site.

But Bass Pro Group LLC Communications Director Jack Wlezien said the activity doesn’t point to new development plans. Morris and company have their hands full with a multimillion-dollar museum facelift in Springfield and a slew of additions around Ridgedale-based resort Big Cedar Lodge.

“We have so many other projects that are active right now between the (Johnny Morris Foundation) and the company,” Wlezien said. “Our main pushes are Dogwood Canyon, Wonders of Wildlife, the shooting academy and the golf offerings.”

With construction dating back to the 1830s, the mill has been part of the local landscape before Ozark was a town, according to local historian Wayne Glenn. The area’s original post office was incorporated into the mill, then known as Hoover’s Mill after owner John Hoover, in 1839. The building that stands at the river’s edge today was built in 1939, following a fire, and it continued operations for another 50 years before owner Lee Hawkins sold it to Morris.

Ozark City Administrator Steve Childers said he was familiar with the rumors of a restaurant or hospitality venture. While officials have had casual conversations with Morris about development of the site, Childers said no plans have been formally filed.

“When the owner of Bass Pro owns that much land, as a planner you start to say ‘hmm,’” Childers said. “It’s likely that will be redeveloped one day and for a different use, so we need to be prepared as a community to ask ourselves if we’re going to consider offering any incentives when a project of that magnitude comes along.”

While the mill remains shuttered and mostly shrouded by vegetation on the river-facing side today, further development in the area could produce renewed interest. The site, along with the Riverview Plaza retail center that will make way for Ozark’s first Kum & Go, is located in an area city officials identified in 2010 as possibly ripe for redevelopment.

“Now after 20 years, who knows?” historian Glenn said, noting the 100-year-old structure would require extensive renovations if an eatery came to fruition. “It would be a tremendous project. I’m sure it would be many millions of dollars to do anything like that.”

Unfurling the empire
While the mill awaits new life, here are the other Bass Pro-related developments in the works for Springfield and Branson.

America’s Wildlife Museum and Aquarium: Closed since late 2007, the former Wonders of Wildlife Museum – rebranded last year as America’s Wildlife Museum and Aquarium – is still under construction. During a news conference and media preview of the aquarium held in March 2015, company officials had pegged spring 2016 for the reopening.

Springfield Business Journal archives indicate cost estimates for the project had totaled more than $80 million in 2014, with the bulk of funding coming from the Johnny Morris Foundation.

Shoppers and travelers passing Bass Pro Shops’ flagship retail store on South Campbell Avenue have undoubtedly noticed the massive digital screen adorning the east-facing facade of the complex, running footage of the museum’s aquariums and animal exhibits. Wlezien said the screen went up in pieces over the course of several weeks in June, with new videos being added as more animals arrive on the museum’s roster of live exhibits.

Announcement of a grand opening date and museum admission prices are pending finalization and completion of the museum interior, Wlezien said.

“There’s still a lot to be done as far as installing,” he said, pointing to elevators, hand-painted murals, signage and wildlife dioramas to complete. “The remainder is in the detail, which obviously like any Johnny Morris project, there are a lot of details.”

Top of the Rock sinkholes: Since heavy rains opened them overnight in May 2015, the sinkholes at Big Cedar Lodge’s Top of the Rock have been the subject of speculation and intense exploration by Morris.

The ongoing search for caves underneath the nine-hole golf course was the subject of a June 24 NBC Nightly News report, which toured the excavation site.

Wlezien said as of July 12, crews had removed 29,000 truckloads of material and revealed underground formations – but so far no cave.

Big Cedar Lodge golf courses: As that hunt continues, the company also is developing near Big Cedar two new golf courses – an 18-hole course by Austin, Texas firm Coore & Crenshaw and a 12-hole course designed by retired professional Gary Player – adding to those already hosting play at Top of the Rock and Buffalo Ridge Springs. Wlezien said the 12-hole course would provide more opportunities for junior and intermediate golfers.

Outdoor Academy: Big Cedar’s overnight guests are so far the only group able to book trap and skeet shooting at the Outdoor Academy as of its late May soft opening. Officials say a public grand opening is being held back until trails for a sporting clays course have been finished.

“The most unique aspect is what’s being developed,” Wlezien said. “You’re going to board a mobile transport and ride from location to location. It’s more than a firing range from that perspective.”

Luke Snyder, who handles partnerships and sports marketing for Bass Pro and coordinates company events in Branson, said Thunder Ridge Arena, an 8,000-seat live performance venue on the grounds, has hosted a dozen private events since last year.

Modeled after iconic locations such as Red Rocks Amphitheatre in Morrison, Colo., the outdoor stadium also has hosted the general public on a few occasions, including last year’s Fourth of July fireworks display and last month’s fundraiser for Dickerson Park Zoo.

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