SBJ PHOTO BY MCKENZIE ROBINSON
Interim President/CEO, Branson/Lakes Area Chamber of Commerce & Convention and Visitors Bureau
What’s the key to getting Branson’s economy back to normal?
I’m not a health expert, but it is going to be driven by safety. If that means a vaccine or if that means treatment to provide that consumer confidence that what they want to do, they can do safely again. I’m so proud of our theaters and restaurants and hotels and motels for taking on the responsibility of the added cleaning, the (personal protective equipment), socially distancing and taking on those policies and procedures and being proactive. It’s not easy to have to conduct a business under restrictions of capacity because we all know that P&L statements rely on volume and revenue.
In 2019, the Branson chamber was tracking roughly $1 billion worth of projects. What does that look like now?
That’s probably around the $800 million to $850 million mark. Some of the completions that we’ve seen are obviously the golf courses down at Big Cedar Golf, Ozarks National came online. Payne’s Valley is getting closer to opening, which they’re having play on right now. WonderWorks opened up earlier this year. Construction continues on the Aquarium at the Boardwalk. Silver Dollar City’s continued investment has obviously been hampered a little bit with restrictions, but I think Mystic River Falls is getting very close to hosting riders.
The workforce in Branson has long been a challenge, and now unemployment is at its highest in a decade. According to federal data, in April that number in Taney County was nearly 25%. In March, it was under 8%. Are there going to be enough jobs that come back for local workers?
I’m hopeful that we will get back there. That April number was shocking. We spike every year in January and February. That 24.8% that hit in April was the highest on record. In May it got down to 22.1%. There’s going to be plenty of jobs for those that are willing to take them. This is not a political statement, but the fact that the state of Missouri this week put the job search requirements back on unemployment benefits, I think that will help. The other issue is we get a lot of international seasonal labor support. Between the J-1 visa program, the cultural exchange program that brings international college students to experience the United States and also work while they’re here, that’s a huge gap that we’re living through right now. H-2B visas are another tool that a lot of employers use that very few have been able to take advantage of this year due to travel restrictions. Then also our own in-house recruitment programs through the island of Puerto Rico – with the pandemic and restrictions of travel, we have not recruited any seasonal labor from the island this year. If you just take those three programs alone, I’m going to say that could add up to easily 1,500 to 1,750 supplemental workers that would have been here this summer to ease with that gap.
In recent weeks, there have been a number of protests in Branson outside retail store Dixie Outfitters, which sells Confederate flag merchandise. What’s the economic impact of that story gaining national attention? What challenges do you face regarding diversity and inclusion?
On the economic development side, I think anytime you have a video clip of one person stating things that are totally unacceptable, it carries weight. We witnessed that. We had eight protests in our market that were all peaceful since Memorial Day weekend. I’m very encouraged and proud of our Branson Police Department for working with both sides of that protest and doing a very good job of making sure that people have the opportunity to have their voices heard. In terms of diversity and inclusion, we have a demonstrated performance of putting on programs going back at least three or four years. I don’t feel like we have any more challenges than any other community. When we started recruiting from Puerto Rico, that led to an education platform that was labeled as Hispanics 101. The follow-up was unconscious bias training for employers that we hosted through that process. Heather Hardinger on our staff … she’s working with Francine Pratt (on) launching a Tough Talks up in Springfield. We’re working on how to bring Tough Talks to this market. Can we do better? Probably. Have we been sitting here doing nothing? Absolutely not.
In an interim capacity, you are filling the role Jeff Seifried vacated as president and CEO of the Branson chamber and CVB. Will you apply for the position?
That’s a TBD. Right now, my role is to work with the volunteer leadership of our board to execute a process that entails hiring an executive search firm and putting the job requirements and the job profile together. And then going out on a nationwide search for candidates that would fit this position. Optimistically, we would probably know something in three to four months, but would also be prepared for it to take as much time as it needs.
Jonas Arjes can be reached at email@example.com.