In this segment of KSMU's Sense of Community Series, KSMU's Michele Skalicky meets with business owners and Branson's economic development director about the business climate in Historic Downtown Branson.
Business was booming on a recent Monday morning at Dick’s 5 and 10 in downtown Branson.
Lots of people—from kids to seniors—were browsing the wide variety of items for sale there, including bacon flavored soda.
The store’s co-owner, Steve Hartley, said Dick’s 5 and 10 has been in the family for 53 and a half years—the whole time in downtown Branson.
He loves being in an area that he said has “its own identity.”
"We are one of the last few vibrant downtowns. We have something here nobody else can duplicate. Most shops are locally owned. We're all working in our own stores, you know, people just don't find that anymore," he said.
There was a period over the last few years that sales in downtown Branson were flat, according to Historic Downtown Branson board president, Michael Frederick. But he said things are on the upswing.
"There is a sense that this year's already picking up. Most people I've talked to are already showing a little bit of a bump in the spring," he said.
Retail sales in Historic Downtown Branson were up 3.1 percent from last year, and that doesn’t include Branson Landing, an area of shops, restaurants and entertainment, which opened along Lake Taneycomo in 2006.
A major infrastructure improvement project is underway in downtown Branson. That came out of city surveys in which residents identified Highway 76 and downtown as priority areas for the city to reinvest in.
Branson’s economic development director, Garrett Anderson, said work on highway 76 will begin soon, and it’s already begun in the downtown area. According to Anderson, there are parts of downtown Branson that attract more tourists than others. The trick, he said, is making sure all the parts benefit from the tourism industry. That’s what the downtown infrastructure project addresses. He said the main issues the project focuses on are things like streets and sewer lines.
"Many of the drain lines and the sewer lines down there are very old. We've had some businesses have some difficulty with their, you know, their businesses and the service that they're getting from the city utilities down there, so we want to make sure that they have adequate service and that they're getting the best lines that they can," he said.
The city will also replace and revamp the sidewalks and replace what are now mostly Bradford pear trees with a diverse mix of trees. The intersection of Main and Commercial will get a speed table for pedestrians to more easily cross the street and to make sure that vehicles slow down. And sidewalks will have bump outs at intersections for more people to gather. Those will also include things like landscaping beds, trees and trash cans that would otherwise have taken up space on the sidewalk.
"You can replace some of that space with outdoor dining, which we don't really have a lot of in downtown yet," Anderson said.
Anderson said they’ll analyze parking downtown to see how it can be improved. They’ll also add signage and wayfinding.
"You know, finding your way downtown, finding the parking, finding the businesses that people are looking for, making sure that everybody knows how to get around," he said.
He said they’ll improve some public infrastructure downtown, like restrooms, and there’s a new park site they’ve identified to showcase the history. He said they don’t want to replace the history in historic downtown.
"We want to make sure that we emphasize the great history that does exist as well as creating additional appeal for young visitors and families that are coming to Branson," he said.
Parts of downtown Branson were removed to make way for Branson Landing. Michael Frederick admits many long-established downtown merchants might say they don’t like the Landing. But he said there are two sides to that coin.
"I think as far as what used to be down there, the old history part, having that removed, you know, a lot of people are looking back and thinking, 'ooh, maybe it would have been better if we'd left that if nothing else for the historical side of it.' But as far as business, I think it attracts attention to us here downtown in historic downtown," he said.
Anderson said a trolley takes people from the Branson Landing parking lots into historic downtown, and it has a ridership of 7000-8000 a month. He said there’s a good synergistic relationship between the historic downtown and the newer lakefront development.
"I think they relate well to each other. The traffic flows well between the two. Hopefully we see a lot of people going to both," he said.
Joe Reish sees both positive and negative sides of Branson Landing for his business. His father opened Reish Shoes and Boots in downtown Branson in 1934, and he grew up at the store before taking over the business. He said when parking was lost due to the building of the Landing and the Convention Center, workers who would park their large vehicles and trailers near his store, no longer shopped there for work and utility boots he sells. Now, sales of those products have significantly dropped. But there’s also a plus side to the newer development.
"The advent of the Landing and the good feeling that goes with an active community has produced more foot traffic, and I'm still here," he said.
Still, he said he misses the “lucrative” sales of work boots at his store. He said, although the Landing caused more people to walk by his store, they are people who have to be converted to the way he’s prepared to do business, and they are generally not his traditional customers. He isn’t too pleased about the construction coming soon near his store, but he admits it needs to be done.
Steve Hartley knows it will be a good thing when it’s finished. He said you need to take a half step back to move ten steps forward.
Garrett said downtown Branson has a wealth of potential. And it’s unique in that, while many cities are trying to revitalize their downtown areas, Branson’s is already vibrant.
"I've worked in several communities where the focus is always, 'what do we do to get a shot in the arm to downtown? What can we do to make this, you know, a lively place again?' and it's difficult to contrast downtown Branson to any of those communities because there's so much energy already going on down there."
Last year, the city saw $6 million in investment in the downtown Branson, according to Anderson, up from two million just a few years ago.
And tourists are flocking to the area. Robert Hagen and his wife were relaxing on a bench in downtown Branson on a recent sunny day. The San Bernardino, California couple was there to meet other couples for a vacation, and one of their first stops was Dicks 5 & 10.
"And this is a hoot," he said.
He said they like the mix of new and old.
"This has such a mixture of different things, and then with the Landing down the street, if you like that kind of shopping. We don't because we have all that in California, but we don't have this kind of atmosphere," he said.
It’s people like Hagen who make Steve Hartley excited about the future of downtown Branson. He said he sees a lot of growth ahead.
Click here to view sales tax figures and other data for the city of Branson.