Branson growing up
City's convention center site is a flurry of activity.
BRANSON — It was a scene never seen before in Branson.
The first tower crane ever brought to Branson smoothly lifted a pallet of lumber to the third floor of what will be the tallest hotel in town while workers in hard hats prepared an adjacent site for Branson's long-awaited convention center.
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The Branson Convention Center will ensure a bright future for the city, said Branson Mayor Lou Schaefer.
"There's no question in my mind that it will add to the entire expanse of what Branson can do in southwest Missouri," said Schaefer, who has worked in support of a convention center for more than the 12 years he has served as mayor. "It's a dream come true."
The greatest impact will be creating a year-round economy, Schaefer said.
"It will give us a 12-month season rather than 10 months, and I can remember when we operated on 100 days a year, from Memorial Day to Labor Day," he said. "The convention center is going to be the absolute climax to everything we've done here toward building tourism in this town."
BEEHIVE OF ACTIVITY
With 14 months until projected completion, more than 100 people are at work on the site of the Branson Convention Center and the 12-story Hilton Convention Center Hotel in downtown Branson. The hotel is taller by two stories than the Chateau on the Lake hotel and convention center.
The complex project is progressing smoothly, said Sandy Steward, construction director for HCW Development Co. HCW also developed Branson Landing, the $420 million lakefront lifestyle center that opened in May next to the convention center site.
They'll soon be pouring concrete for the third floor of the hotel. Some steel is already up on the convention center site where all ground preparation will be completed by September, Steward said.
All the infrastructure, including drainage and underground utilities, have been in place for two years in conjunction with the building of Branson Landing.
Work on the interior design for both projects is under way, said architect John Stephenson of Ventulett, Stainback & Associates Inc. of Atlanta.
The 275-room Hilton Convention Center Hotel will be linked electronically to the 243-room Hilton Promenade Hotel on Branson Landing and to the convention center so that food, for example, may be charged from any of the properties through underground data lines.
The Promenade Hotel is a little more luxuriously appointed than the convention center hotel because it's designed for longer leisure stays, said Mark Hartman, manager for both the hotels. The Promenade Hotel will open in September.
The Hilton Convention Center Hotel includes a restaurant, swimming pool, atrium patio and landscaping on the east side to minimize the view of supply trucks arriving at loading docks.
On the west side are the railroad tracks that carry the Branson Scenic Railway and other trains. City officials are working with the railroad to install a quiet zone as trains pass the hotel and convention center. Such a quiet zone was recently erected in east Springfield.
The 220,000-square-foot convention center will feature an undulating facade of glass facing Lake Taneycomo. There will be a 50,000-square-foot open span exhibition hall, 23,000-square-foot ballroom and 15,000-square-feet of meeting space. The spaces can be joined for large events, "but the real heart and soul will be having multiple users at the same time," said TVS architect Mike Ezell.
SOMETHING TO SELL
Bill Tirone, marketing director for Hilton Hotels, the company managing the convention center, as well as Tracy Kimberlin, director of the Springfield Convention and Visitors Bureau, said they are not seeing a slowdown in convention business because of higher gasoline and transportation costs. But competition is on the rise, Kimberlin said.
"Cities are building or adding to convention center facilities all over the country," Kimberlin said. "They opened a convention center in St. Charles and one in Overland Park, Kansas. Lake of Ozarks would love to get one."
Kimberlin said Branson's convention center will provide competition, but he and Tirone have discussed ways to cooperate on convention marketing.
"You just have to find your market and go for it," Kimberlin said.
Sometimes price is less critical than facilities, but "it's often who gives the best deal," Kimberlin said.
Tirone said Hilton has already booked "a fair amount" of conventions for corporations, state association and public events including the Log Cabin Timber Frame Home Expo.
"We get two to three leads a day that are fairly decent-sized groups," ranging from 200 to about 4,000 attendees, Tirone said.
Hilton already has an extensive base of customers in the U.S. and abroad who stay at convention centers operated by Hilton Hotels or stay in Hiltons near sites of other convention centers, Tirone said.
But Branson will be a unique niche.
"I think of Branson as the leisure cousin to Springfield," Tirone said. Because of Branson's entertainment attractions including Branson Landing, "there will be conventions that have leisure as a portion of what their activities are about."