HCW named developer of Branson Landing project

By Bruce W. Bowlin, Staff Writer, Branson Daily Indpependent

The Branson Landing lakefront redevelopment project has a new developer of record, thanks to a 5-1 vote of the Branson Board of Aldermen late Tuesday night, Feb. 18.Neither the vote nor the comments on the proposed redevelopment contract with HCW Development Company — the subject of the special meeting — offered many surprises after the regular board meeting of the previous week.

Support for the contract and opposition to it was nearly evenly divided throughout the four-and-a-half hour long meeting, with 10 speakers imploring the board not to approve the bill and eight urging its passage.

The importance of approving the contract on its final reading was spelled out very clearly early in the meeting by David Queen, of Gilmore &Bell’s Kansas City office.”The way development occurs is that the developer cannot secure the commitments that underlie the [Tax Increment Financing, or TIF] revenues until he has contractual rights to offer that property and the right to build those improvements on the site,” he explained.”We don’t know if the developer can produce [the retail anchors mandated by the contract],” Queen pointed out, “but we do know the developer can’t go get them unless the developer has a contract.”

That observation did little to convince some of those attending the meeting of the necessity of executing the contract, though.Taney County Presiding Commissioner Chuck Pennel, for instance, asked the board to “put a hold on [approving the contract] for six weeks” until the results of the municipal election in April could be learned, since it was possible, he believed, that new board members could be elected, but the contract would be as binding on them as on the current members.”If you all are put back in,” Pennel promised, “I’ll commit to not criticize you again about the Branson Landing project,” which drew some laughter from the audience.

Not all of the exchanges were so friendly, though, throughout the long meeting. Between repeated requests by Dan Wichmer of the Springfield law firm of Lathrop & Gage to speak only to the ordinance under consideration and a few heated exchanges between visitors and city officials, the proceeding occasionally threatened to devolve into outright hostility. Ward II Alderman Bob Warlick apologized for one of his own sharp remarks made earlier in the evening, saying, “Folks who know me a lot of times say, ‘Don’t poke the bear. The bear is grumpy today’.”

Peter Herschend, president of Herschend Family Entertainment Corporation, related, “The position of our company and my position personally — and I reflect a management position — is that we are strongly in support of the issue before you tonight, and we strongly recommend that you pass this issue.”His support for the contract “does not mean … that every question has been answered in this process,” but he offered an analogy for urging the board to approve the item.

“I liken it to buying a house,” he said. “You must open the door and walk into the house in order to see if it’s going to meet your needs in general.” While “buying the house” wasn’t a decision that should be made hastily — “you ask questions, you continue to probe,” Herschend said — the first step in “buying” the proposed lakefront “house” was approving the contract and then seeing if HCW could deliver on the commitments required of it.

Similarly, Ross Summers, executive vice president of the Branson/Lakes Area Chamber of Commerce and Convention and Visitors Bureau, reiterated his Board of Director’s unanimous support for the project “with two conditions, the first one being that the examination level study by [Los Angeles-based Economic Research Associates] came back as positive and also that our marketing dollars that were supplied to the Chamber of Commerce through the tourism tax not be affected.” With those two conditions still in force, Summers indicated the chamber was still in support of the project and he encouraged “a positive vote” on the contract.

Donna Kennedy, director of the Hometown Merchant’s Association, offered a counterpoint, raising her organization’s concerns with the potential impact of the tax incentives on existing businesses. She reported she had shown the proposed contract both to her council and its legal adviser, both of whom “had a lot of concerns” with it.”There’s a lot of accountability here for the City of Branson,” she related. “I don’t see a lot of accountability for the developer.”

Kennedy said she was currently serving on “a TIF reform committee working in [Jefferson City] along with Senator [Wayne] Goode and Senator [Doyle] Childers.” The goal of that committee, she said, is to rewrite the state TIF statutes and get that legislation “back to where it was supposed to be.”Part of that effort, she indicated, was to try to secure the passage by the legislature of Senate Bill 172, which was introduced in the state senate by Goode on Dec. 4, 2002, and was, she said, also supported by Childers.

Kennedy offered her organization’s help in determining any adverse impact the project might have on existing business, including addressing such issues as how many local businesses might be lost in the first three years after the development was completed and what financial support might be provided to those businesses “put at risk” by the tax incentives offered to the new firms the city hoped to attract to the waterfront.

Local resident John Logan also questioned the fairness of the incentives designed to lure in new businesses that might then “cannibalize” existing ones in the area. “Would it be fair,” he asked, “for Knotsberry Farm to come down to our lakefront and for this city government to grant them funds to build … in competition with [Silver Dollar City], built with blood, sweat and tears?”

Logan also wanted to know whether approving a contract naming HCW as the lakefront developer would constitute an act of “bigamy,” since the lawsuit filed by the Australian-based Branson Landing consortium — part of which demands the city reinstate the consortium as the lakefront developer — was still unresolved.

Mayoral candidate Larry Milton also encouraged the aldermen to ratify the contract, pointing out, “[HCW’s Rick Huffman] does need the authority [to pursue binding commitments from the anchor retail tenants], or we’re setting him up to fail.”Mayoral candidate Ray Wilson and board candidate Helen Maxwell, meanwhile, still voiced their firm opposition to approval of the contract.

Ryan Bedwell, meanwhile, owner of the Ozark Mountain Automotive Service on Sycamore Street, did not come to criticize the project itself, but instead the effort to obtain land west of the Missouri Pacific Railroad tracks.”We’re paying these bigger businesses money to come in down here,” he said, but “the amount of money I have been offered [for my property] would force me to close my doors. I can’t relocate on it, [and] it would put me out [of business].””I guess I’ve got a real problem with paying these other people to come in and start new businesses when we have to put our own out of business,” he admitted.

Chuck Pennel, speaking again near the end of the meeting, echoed Bedwell’s concerns, especially since it was his “understanding” that HCW was securing options and making offers on properties west of the tracks even though “they have not had an appraisal on that property other than railroad right-of-way.”)

The meeting did offer residents a few assurances regarding a couple of the historical sites along the waterfront, though. Early in the meeting, Mayor Lou Schaefer asserted that both the bleachers of Mang Field, constructed as a WPA project in the 1930s, and the Liberty Tree “will remain.”

Queen offered more reassurance regarding a “major misconception” that the TIF bonds the city intends to issue to pay for the public improvements constitutes a debt the city is responsible for paying.”The TIF bonds, under the [state] statute, are special, limited obligations payable solely from the TIF revenues that are pledged to secure them,” he said, “and that is the way this contract is drafted. This contract does not obligate the city to use its annual appropriation power to use its general fund to ‘backstop’ these obligations in any way.””That means,” he asserted, “that if the revenues don’t materialize, the investors would take the loss.”

City Administrator Terry Dody, meanwhile, raised the hope that, with approval of the measure, residents might see some swift advances along the Lake Taneycomo shoreline.

“If all the stars and planets lined up right — if,” he said, “we might see construction start somewhere in the fall, perhaps.”

When the measure was finally called to a vote, only Ward III Alderman Larry Taylor, who again expressed his concern with authorizing a payment to HCW prior to the effective date that company was to deliver binding commitments from the anchor retail tenants, voted against the measure.

With both the amended technical services contract and the redevelopment contract now approved, it will now fall to HCW to deliver those tenants prior to Jan. 1 of next year at the latest, although the company becomes eligible to receive the full $500,000 development services fee after March 1.

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