Ironically, even as Branson is seemingly trying to evolve away from the history, heritage, and the type of entertainment that attracts millions to it every year, at least one other “Branson wannabee” appears interested in emulating that very thing. Well sort of.
The good folks in Houston County, Alabama are in the process of investing hundreds of millions of dollars to launch a new 776 acre country entertainment Mecca allegedly based on the same country entertainment and business paradigm that has made Branson so successful. An article entitled, “Country music resort similar to Branson, Mo. planned for county” by Lance Griffin, appearing in the Dothan Eagle on Feb. 25, reports that the Houston County Commission has signed an agreement with Ronnie Gilley Properties, LLC for the development of Country Crossing, a project that will become a national tourist destination.
According to the agreement the project is intended “to consist of all the attractions and venues found in destinations like Branson, Missouri.” The article goes on to report that one of the principals in the project said that the only comparison that can be made to Country Crossing is Branson, Missouri because of the great demand for a family oriented venue. That same person said, “Branson has flourished despite its extremely remote location.”
The article further reports Country Crossing’s Developer Ronnie Gilley as saying that he believes Country Crossing could surpass the ‘star power’ of Branson, Mo and that it is a well-created myth that top-level country music artists perform in Branson.” What’s this “myth” stuff? The article states that country music artist George Jones introduced the proposed project as “The most important new entertainment development resort in the country.”
Is it a myth or has that same George Jones appeared at the Grand Palace in Branson, Missouri in the not too distant past? Have not some of the other artists mentioned in association with the project also appeared in Branson at the Grand Palace and other venues? With seven million visitors a year coming to Branson, Jones filled how many out of the 4,000 seats in the Grand Place?
That aside however, the project is moving forward. In fact, at 6:33 p.m. on March 13, the web site of the Dothan Eagle reported, “About 776 acres of land just off Highway 231 South near West Smithville Road and State Highway 109 will be the site of the proposed Country Crossing development. Developer Ronnie Gilley confirmed the deal to the Dothan Eagle at 5:30 p.m. Thursday after the final contract was signed.” Gilley indicated that he hopes that construction can start within 90 days.
Is the project competition for Branson? In the general sense that any other destination is “Yes” but in terms of direct competition “Not a chance.” Why? Branson’s family entertainment industry has been developing for over a century and thanks to pioneers like the Snadon, Mabe, Pressley, and Herschend families, to mention just a few, it is more than a trite label or marketing ploy, it is part of our very spirit and who we are.
Just before the Houston County Commission made the agreement for the project, it introduced and unanimously passed new regulations for charitable bingo in Houston County. Under the new regulations electronic bingo would be allowed in Houston County only under certain requirements, including at least $2 million in liability insurance, on-site security, and the inclusion of other entertainment related developments such as restaurants, hotels, dinner theaters and a venue seating no less than 3,144 for entertainment purposes. For all practical purposes the “electronic bingo machines” are very similar to slot machines in both looks and results.
To an Ole Seagull that says volumes about just how committed the county and the project are to family entertainment and what the project is really intended to be. It might end up being a Bingo for them with gambling and entertainment but, from its very inception, that is what it will be and that’s not what brings millions of visitors to Branson. At least for now, Branson is still that special place with that special spirit that can’t be built or developed but can be lost if those to whom the gift is given don’t cherish and protect it.