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Cathy Stepp is interviewed by SBJ's Christine Temple.
Rebecca Green | SBJ
Cathy Stepp is interviewed by SBJ's Christine Temple.

A Conversation With ... Cathy Stepp

City Administrator, City of Branson

Posted online

You’ve been in your position since late 2022. What accomplishments have you made in the role so far?
Assembling a team that brought in a dramatic change in culture. Bringing that culture of innovation, private sector mentalities when we’re dealing with the public, being empathetic to businesses that are trying to either locate here or expand their facilities in Branson, a true open for business mindset. We’ve made some key personnel changes. That really has sent a message, I think, to the business community that we really want to work with them.

As far as the open for business mentality, have there been businesses that have announced expansions or openings within Branson that you feel will make a particular impact?
At our last Board of Aldermen meeting, we had the final approval for a huge economic development project that’s going to bring new attractions to Branson. So, we’re always going to be primarily tourism focused. But we’re open in particular to more year-round attractions to help build on the shoulder seasons and really encourage people to come here all year round to keep that employment level consistent. The company’s name is Philcrest, and they’re bringing a huge facility called Mammoth Fieldhouse to Branson, which is going to be on Gretna Road. It probably will open in about 14 to 16 months. It’s a multirecreational facility, restaurants, libations, a Top Golf-like experience, along with some putting experiences and lots of pickleball courts. It’s the first big project that we’ve had in a long time in Branson.

What about housing within that picture? More companies, more jobs equal more need for workforce housing and that’s been a struggle. There is a new apartment complex opening within the next couple of months, Bluff View Apartments. How is the city focusing on those efforts?
We just had a roundtable recently with some folks from the chamber, area developers, the Springfield [Home]builders Association. First thing we have to do is, internally, we have to fix our systems and processes and make sure local government isn’t getting in the way of expediency and, of course, working within the confines of the laws and the codes that are in place. But we’ve got to make sure that we are welcoming, that we’re helping people get to yes within the confines of the rules. We’ve done a really good in-depth analysis of that, and we’ve found some of the snags. But the biggest thing is for the city to be open to incentivize. The biggest challenge we have in Branson is our geology and how expensive it is to dig underground when it’s solid rock right beneath the surface. That is many times cost prohibitive to a lot of people. So, what can we do from the city side to help offset some of those costs? We’re having real meaningful conversations with developers right now on a project-by-project basis. The door is wide open to have conversations on incentives, especially for workforce housing. J1 housing is another project that we’re working on. That should break in the spring.

What are some of the incentive programs you’re looking at?
Offsetting some of the utility installation costs, that really seems to be one of the most prohibitive areas. You’ve got to bore and dynamite through rock to be able to install some of those systems; we’ve got to be wide-eyed about that. I think taxpayers in Branson are going to be willing to invest in smart, good development that we’re in a shortage of right now.

Branson had a record 10.2 million visitors in 2022 and 2023 was tracking to be about the same. What do you think are the biggest drivers of tourism? I’ve heard some businesses are betting on natural elements becoming more of a draw.
You’re so right. The market that we’re going to be looking at tapping into more in 2024 is our potential trail development program. We want to be talking about outdoor recreation, whether it’s extreme biking or extreme trails. That’s really, I think, an untapped market for our city. And again, why fight the topography? Why not embrace it like what’s been happening in northwest Arkansas?

Branson signed a sponsorship deal this summer with the Kansas City Chiefs to become the team’s official vacation destination. Tell me more about the impact that you’ve seen from that, and what was the investment to make that partnership happen?
We split it 50/50 with the Taney County [Office of] Economic Development. Our investment was $600,000 per year. I’ll tell you the best thing that probably could have happened to us through all this was, as much as people might be annoyed by, it was the Travis Kelce/Taylor Swift partnering. It really exposed Branson by default to so many in Swift Nation. That’s exciting to see people starting to engage and starting to look at just Missouri, in particular, people who haven’t been NFL football fans before paying attention for the first time. Just having Branson be top of mind for people or people to just think, gosh, I’ve heard about Branson and I just don’t know what’s there. This is not your grandfather’s Branson anymore.

With that $600,000 annual investment as part of a $1.2 million overall deal, how will you determine whether you are recouping your investment? Because this is not your only effort to market Branson.
The Chiefs have a very sophisticated and dynamic marketing department as well. They’re going to be using their own key performance indicators to help us. But our CVB in Branson also has great tools that they can utilize to help to measure that, geofencing, all different kinds of data and tools that they’re going to be using to find how many unique visitors we’re receiving.

What are your KPIs?
We haven’t developed those yet. That’s something the CVB does for us.

You put in place a Lodging Safety Initiative this fall to ensure lodging establishments are complying with required health and public safety standards and code regulations. Have you seen benefits from that new initiative?
The whole impetus for this was just the recognition of the reputation that we have to uphold. We want people to know that they're going to be safe here. We had some businesses that had been operating without a license for a while. There wasn't any internal controls in city government before to make sure people are complying. We were going first after those. At a minimum, you need to be paying your business license fees and signing up for your regular inspections. In just the first wave of inspections that we've gone to, we've notified folks who have been out of compliance that we're coming for a visit. We have several that have come in and got back up into compliance. And then we've had some that didn't, and there's some that voluntarily closed because the code corrections were too costly for them to actually implement. My goal is 100% compliance. We're not looking to put anybody out of business. We just want to make sure that Branson visitors have a safe place when they come to stay.

You're newer in this position, and there's a new Branson chamber leader, what's on the horizon that you're most excited about?
The partnership with the chamber and the CVB – it's not a secret that that's been a fractured relationship for a long time. I don't know why that is and I can't really spend a lot of time looking back, but from where I'm from in Wisconsin, it was very foreign for me to see that kind of a chasm between local government and your very own chamber and CVB. Pam [Yancey] coming in with a fresh perspective – she's well established in the community, everyone who knows Pam loves Pam and they trust her. And that was a big thing to our Board of Alderman and mayor is that we needed to know that there'd be somebody at the helm that would appreciate the concerns that our board has had for a while on the different marketing tactics and would hear that and then work together to help implement some tweaks and changes. Pam is just the right woman for this moment in time, the perfect person for this job. As soon as Pam's name was announced, everybody breathed a collective sigh of relief and excitement.

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