Branson's Shows Go On Despite Tornado Damage
DAVID GREENE, HOST:
The summer tourism season is what keeps Branson, Missouri thriving. Last year, Branson's live music venues helped draw more than seven million visitors. And so when a tornado tore through the city's popular strip this past February, Branson's future seemed uncertain. As Missy Shelton of member station KSMU reports, city leaders are working hard to let people know that Branson is open for business.
MISSY SHELTON, BYLINE: In the early hours of February 29th, an EF2 tornado plowed its way along Highway 76 in Branson. Because it hit one of the city's prime tourist areas, it made national news. The Weather Channel's Mike Bettes came to survey the damage.
MIKE BETTES: We've got debris that is strewn all around us. It's right here on what's known as the Branson strip. This is where all the hotels are, and the restaurants and the theatres run along Highway 76 here. And this is an area that was hit pretty hard.
ROSS SUMMERS: It gave us a challenge when it comes to controlling the message. As you probably are aware, the media is very difficult to control - almost impossible.
SHELTON: That's Ross Summers, president and CEO of the Branson Lakes Area Chamber of Commerce. He says while more than 40 businesses sustained damage, most places remained open. He wants the millions who visit Branson each year to know that they shouldn't cancel their vacation plans.
SUMMERS: We really took a chance and were criticized to some degree in telling people that, you know, by golly, we're still here and we're still open, because right across the street there was a hotel that was completely destroyed.
SHELTON: It wasn't just the Chamber Of Commerce that was worrying about the message. Businesses here were in full damage control mode. YouTube videos showing massive debris piles along the Branson strip made the rounds on social media sites. So, promoters of the Branson show "Legends in Concert" created their own video highlighting the damage at their theater. It features the show's celebrity impersonators, including the Blues Brothers, with a message for would-be visitors.
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UNIDENTIFIED MAN #1: We've got a lot of work ahead, but we're going to be back and ready to entertain in no time at all.
UNIDENTIFIED MAN #2: And remember that Branson is open for business and needs your support now more than ever.
SHELTON: Jeannie Horton is general manager of the "Legends in Concert" show and says she worried as much about the fallout from the media coverage as she did about the actual damage.
JEANNIE HORTON: We were very concerned reopening, too, with all the national attention. Is Branson closed? What's happening? And we wanted to get the message out there that we're open for business. And really there was just a few theaters that were damaged to the extent, you know, of not being able to open.
SHELTON: Though her theater lost much of its roof and lobby and its video and sound system, it reopened six weeks after the storm. Horton is standing outside the theater where repair work is continuing.
HORTON: All the stucco on the side of the building had to be replaced because there were sticks in it and glass. We're very blessed that the workers worked so quickly to get this done.
SHELTON: Workers are still busy over at the Hilton Hotel, where the tornado ravaged one side of the building and blasted out windows. That hotel isn't expected to reopen until the fall. You may be able to get a sense of Branson's summer prospects by talking to tourists like Walter Berry, who drove here from the St. Louis area.
WALTER BERRY: You know, you could go on the Internet and all that and see the pictures of the spots we knew, and it looked pretty bad. But I knew they'd be right back because they keep building new stuff.
SHELTON: Branson is reinventing itself yet again, this time as a town working hard to recover from a tornado, while trying to lure tourists to vacation in the Ozarks this summer.
For NPR News, I'm Missy Shelton.
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