Much of the affordable accommodation in the resort city is away from its popular entertainment street. One solution: motor scooters offered without discounts.
WHY WE ARE HERE
We’re exploring how America defines itself one place at a time. In this Midwestern resort town, a housing crisis has led to creative transportation solutions.
Christie Schubert fired up her new scooter — Taiwanese-made, with midcentury modern Italian lines — and headed to work on a Friday night in Branson, Mo., the ultra-conservative tourist destination in the Ozarks that solicits himself as one of the most « patriotic cities in America ».
It was here, amid the brassy country music variety shows with their troop tributes and flag salutes, that Ms. Schubert, 43, once blazed a trail of excess and poor choices. Eventually, she was evicted, her car was repossessed, and she found herself living first in the woods, and then in one of the old motels around the city’s swanky entertainment district.
By some estimates, nearly 20 percent of people living in Branson are homeless or staying in motels. They are workers and drifters, service industry wrestlers and worn-out honky-tonkers, some struggling with addiction, others raising children in difficult circumstances.
These days, Ms. Schubert, who is recovering from drug addiction, has a new job as an usher at the Clay Cooper Theater, home to a star-studded music revue. And she, miraculously, has the new scooter, a model called the SYM Fiddle, the benefits of which she described in the most Branson-like terms.
« It feels like freedom, » he said.
Mrs. Schubert is barely getting by on her salary, but she was able to finance her scooter with no upfront money and no credit check as part of a new program launched by a non-profit group, Elevate Branson, which seeks to alleviate the city’s interconnected transportation and housing challenges. Such problems are shared by many rural communities, but in Branson have been exacerbated by the unique characteristics of a place once described by Homer Simpson (at least according to Bart) as “like Vegas, if it were run by Ned Flanders.”
In the 1980s and 1990s, Branson, a city of about 13,000 near the Arkansas border, boomed as something of a country miracle, attracting aging and beloved musical performers like Roy Clark, Mickey Gilley and Mel Tillis, who set up theaters that drew Heartland fans from the packed buses.
Restaurants and T-shirt shops followed, as did opulent ones biblical dramasRipley’s Believe It or Not! museum, a Trump-themed gift shop, and lots of low-paying jobs. But quality affordable housing has been in short supply.
The Branson Housing Authority maintains a 40-unit property for the elderly and disabled. Locals say developers are generally less interested in building housing for low-wage workers than custom vacation homes. Much of the affordable housing that exists is a far cry from the workplaces on the Strip.
« You can find accessibility, but then you’re five, 10, 15, 20, 30 miles from your job, » said Jonas Arjes, acting head of the local chamber of commerce and visitors bureau.
That leaves many of the workers who power Branson with a tough choice. They can live in the suburbs, with long commutes. Or they may live in the city, in motels. But even for motel dwellers, getting around can be difficult. There’s a limited downtown tourist tram and ride-sharing companies, but the latter can dry out the pockets of the working poor. Plans to build a monorail or gondola on the strip, to move tourists and workers alike, never materialized.
The idea for the scooter was conceived by Elevate Branson executive director Bryan Stallings, 56, who came to Branson in 1987 to run a karaoke recording studio. Later, he had a religious revival and founded Elevate Branson with his wife, Amy.
The couple began handing out meals to motel dwellers in 2009, and continue to feed hundreds of them every week. They learned that Branson’s working poor need help with job training, medical care, financial literacy, access to government agencies, and travel to doctors’ offices and other appointments.
The rough estimate that 2,500 Branson residents are homeless or living in motels comes from Elevate Branson’s grant applications and is based, Stallings said, on participants in its dining programs, the number of motels in the city and school statistics. public addresses of children with problems of motels.
« A lot of tourists, a lot of Midwesterners, come to Branson to celebrate America, the American way of life and Christian values, » said Mr. Stallings, who plans to soon build the city’s first small community home for low wage workers. “Behind all of this, though, is this struggling population that serves these tourists.
City government, Stallings said, may be averse to addressing its toughest challenges, in part because doing so would go against Branson’s squeaky clean image. (City officials declined to speak for this article.)
Mr Stalling I first heard of a scooter-for-the-poor program in Memphis, where a nonprofit called MyCityRides has put more than 450 workers on wheels. His fledgling project in Branson, an extension of the Memphis project, had fewer than 20 participants in early June.
But imagine scooters everywhere – a taste of Ho Chi Minh City in the Ozarks. Soon, he said, hundreds of temporary foreign workers will arrive under the State Department’s J-1 visa program, filling jobs to cope with the summer tourist rush. Mr. Stallings plans to offer them smaller scooters to rent for $50 a week.
Locals who adopt early are already seeing benefits. A scooter owner named Ryan Booth, 31, lives 15 miles from his job at a place called Crazy Craig’s Cheeky Monkey Bar. « I’ve got an old car that’s going to explode on me at any minute, » he said.
The workers co-sign their scooter loans with Elevate Branson, making payments of about $160 a month for outright possession of the vehicles. The nonprofit pays for training, insurance, maintenance, repairs, a helmet and a motorcycle jacket. At about $5 a day, Mr. Stallings said, that’s a relative bargain, particularly compared to a round-trip Uber ride.
That Friday in May, Mrs. Schubert came out of her motel, put out a cigarette and started the engine. She made a left onto the Strip, where a towering King Kong clung to a mock skyscraper above the Hollywood Wax Museum. She passed the Belgian Waffle and Pancake House, the Ozarkland gift shop, and a miniature golf course.
Just past a spaghetti restaurant – which one announces itself with a 50-foot-tall dinner fork protruding from a 15-foot patty — he made a left into the theater parking lot, in time for his 5:00 pm shift.
The scooter makes her imagine other possibilities, even small ones, like a leisurely ride to Table Rock Lake, where she has always dreamed, like so many Ozark tourists, of building a home.
For now, he said, just get there.