by Carol Harris
and Paul Flemming
Calling it a project that will take Branson "to the next level" in increasing visitors, Branson Mayor Lou Schaefer announced at a Sept. 22 press conference plans by developer John Connelly of Pittsburgh, Pa., to build a 154,000-square-foot Branson Convention Center.
According to Schaefer, who said he had been working with Connelly for several months on behalf of the city, "It is what the city has been desiring for 20 years."
The Branson Convention Center will be located on 52 acres on the west side of Branson behind the Remington Theater, also owned by Connelly. Access to the convention center will be from the Shepherd of the Hills Expressway on Convention Boulevard, a street to be built by the city of Branson, and will connect with Pat Nash Drive at the Factory Merchants Mall.
Visitors will also be able to reach the convention center from Highway 76 on Remington Boulevard, which will run in front of the convention center and will connect with Convention Boulevard.
"This facility is being financed totally by private money. There are no city dollars going into this facility," Schaefer said. "The city is financing the construction of Convention Boulevard. This is a much-needed road anyway to connect Highway 76 to Shepherd of the Hills Expressway."
Connelly said the convention center will cost $17 million to $18 million to build, and it is expected to be complete by the spring of 2000. He said ground breaking should start within 60 to 90 days of obtaining the necessary permits. The city's cost for the construction of Convention Boulevard will be $1.5 million.
Schaefer said the convention center will house a 100,800-square-foot exhibit hall with a 34-foot ceiling, which can be divided into three halls. Together the halls will be able to accommodate a trade show for 520 booths or a banquet for 5,600 people.
The west hall will have folding bleachers that can accommodate a lecture, sporting event or entertainment production for 3,200 people.
The convention center will also include smaller meeting rooms on the second level, storage areas, a banquet kitchen and dressing rooms for entertainers. The parking lot will hold 1,500 cars. Schaefer said Pellham-Phillips-Hagerman of Springfield is the architect.
In December 1997, John Q. Hammons announced plans for an exposition center in Springfield if local voters approved a room-tax increase. That increase was approved in February. Hammons' project is a $15 million, 100,000-square-foot convention center with a 45,000-square-foot expo center and 30,000 square feet of meeting space.
The Branson project, as announced, will be able to accommodate larger conventions.
"That's a major facility. When you have the square footage Branson is putting up, you can market to very large conventions," said Randy Roelofsz, general manager of Hammons-owned Holiday Inn University Plaza Hotel and Convention Center. "Those don't grow on trees."
Connelly said he wants to capture the market of conventions that have been too large to meet in Branson. He said the Branson/Lakes Area Chamber of Commerce and Convention & Visitors Bureau received 600 convention inquiries during the past year.
Connelly cited examples of facility requests needing to accommodate 1,000 to 15,000 people. "We now can bring in (those) 600 conventions a year, hopefully more," Connelly said.
Roelofsz said if the proposed Branson center attracts very large conventions, it will be complementary to Springfield's efforts to bring overnight visitors to the area. Smaller conventions that Springfield's current facilities or the planned Hammons expo center could handle will bring the two communities into competition.
"That's when it becomes critical for us to compete," Roelofsz said. "The days of 'we will build it and they will come' are over. The facility is just a beginning. You have to have a sophisticated marketing effort" and support systems to attract conventions.
Schaefer said, "I feel that a dream has come true with the announcement of this convention center. This is the next, natural step for Branson, and a very lucrative step at that."
Missouri Lt. Gov. Roger Wilson, who heads the Missouri Tourism Commission and was also at the press conference, said that he had known Connelly for several years. Wilson said, "You couldn't have landed in a better place. This place understands tourism and hospitality more than any place in the United States."
Connelly also announced his intention to build an ice skating rink next to the convention center. The 120-by-60-foot outdoor rink will accommodate 200 skaters and will be open year-round. Connelly, who expects the rink to open Nov. 1, said, "We are buying one already completed. We just have to assemble it."
These plans follow the announcement a week ago of Connelly's new restaurant, Giovanni's Italian Heaven, located next to the Remington Theater, and set to open next year in March.
He said more announcements are to come. "I've purchased another 52 acres next to that 52 acres of the convention center," Connelly said. He said he will probably build a convention center hotel on the new site. "We are going to do everything possible to make this a year-round destination," Connelly said.
Finding a more convenient location for air travel to bring large numbers of conventioneers to Branson is a situation the city is also addressing, Schaefer said.
"We are working on additional airport facilities here," Schaefer said, referring to the M. Graham Clark Airport at the College of the Ozarks.
Schaefer said the newly refurbished 3,500-foot runway could be extended another 2,000 feet to accommodate larger aircraft.
Connelly, whose private jet is too large to land at the college airport, said better facilities closer to Branson was one of the first things he wanted to accomplish. Springfield's air service "could be a real card in our favor," Roelofsz said, in vying for the same convention business.
Branson City Administrator John Pinch said that most travelers are used to driving 45 minutes to one hour from the airport to their downtown destination in major metropolitan areas such as Kansas City. He said driving to Branson from the Springfield-Branson Regional Airport would be no different.
"We know of how this can work. This will be a regional hub," Pinch said.
Another regional airport may have a renewed interest in Branson, too. "Harrison, (Ark.) is already asking how many planes we are bringing in next year," Schaefer said.
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