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Tourism destination in Missouri battles seasonal unemployment, poverty in off-season

Posted at 4:21 PM, Feb 20, 2020

BRANSON, Mo. – Tourist destinations across America have a busy season and an off-season. During the off-season, the economy tends to slow down. That holds true for a couple months each year in Branson, Missouri – a place known as a family-friendly town usually filled with visitors in the parks, lakes, and shops.

“We are at about a six week standstill after the first of the year,” said Lynn Berry with the Branson Lakes Area Chamber of Commerce and Visitors Bureau.

The rest of the time, Branson welcomes 9 million visitors a year. When the town’s busy season slows down, nonprofit Christian Action Ministries speeds up.

“Right now is the height of our season at Christian Action Ministries and dealing with food insecurity,” said Kevin Huddleston, the executive director with Christian Action Ministries.

The organization helps feed the community.

“Primarily to help people get through the off-season months,” he said.

Huddleston said during the summer they see around 100 households a day. During this time of the year, that number is about 150. The population of Branson floats around 12,000 people for perspective.

Each day, people line up before the doors open.

“If it wasn’t for places like this, I’d go hungry most of the time,” Art said.

Art is one of the people who came down to get food, something people can do once a month from this nonprofit. The process starts with some basic questions about your job, household and cooking abilities.

Then they are allowed to pick two breads while the volunteers pack a larger bag accordingly.

“Most of the people you see here wouldn’t eat if it wasn’t for places like this,” Art said.

Art currently lives out of his car.

“Construction or I work in restaurants, I’ll wash dishes, you know anything. Usually in the summer I try to work two jobs so I can save up for the time off,” he said.

“Most tourism jobs are more of an entry-level position, a lot of them are part-time,” Huddleston said. “These jobs really aren’t intended for family breadwinners.”

This is a situation Branson and other tourism-focused towns face.

“Branson is kind of a perfect storm of tourism and poverty,” said Bryan Stallings, the executive director at Elevate Branson.

The nonprofit helps people learn job skills.

“Low paying wages, seasonal unemployment, no transportation system and no affordable housing,” Stallings explained. “It’s kind of created this perfect storm for poverty.”

As people with low incomes looked to find other places to live, weekly rate motels flourished. But recently, there’s been trouble there too.

“Over 40 of these motels we’ve seen about 16 of them close,” Stallings said. “Which is putting a squeeze on places to live for folks.”

He said the town is 1,300 units short on affordable housing units.

“One of the things we are trying to work with particularly is moving people out of hotel and motel rooms that have been serving as their apartment,” Lynn Berry said.

She said while she sees a lot of people draw unemployment this time of year, Branson is doing better.

“Truly back in the day, you could shoot a cannon down Main Street after October 31, and not hit anyone until about April 1,” she said.

Local restaurants like Big D’s BBQ have come up with solutions to help maintain business in the winter.

“We do [pull] back our schedule to some extent, we do close one day of the week here in the restaurant,” said Dana Peterson, the owner Big D’s BBQ.

They feed up to a couple thousand people a day in the summer. During the winter, that number is in the hundreds.

“It’s our core group of people that maintain the full employment, not our seasonal help when staff is at full capacity,” he said.

Lynn said they’ve brought in more museums and other activities to do in town during bad weather or the parks off seasons, to help create more interest in coming to Branson during the winter.

“Museums were probably the biggest hit for us,” she said.

Branson continues to look for ways to make the town more year round, and keep people working.

“It’s going to take all of us working together in our community to solve some of these issues,” Stallings said.