Country music mecca takes a new, private approach to airport

Starting next week, pilots for AirTran and Sun Country airlines will bring the first jetliners filled with paying passengers here to Mid-America's kitschy mecca for country music lovers and budget-conscious family vacationers.

They'll land at the nation's first commercial airport built and operated as a private, for-profit business for which federal, state and local taxpayers paid nothing.

The new $155 million airport carved into a couple of rugged Ozark mountains is called simply Branson Airport. And it's as modest as its name. Its lone 7,140-foot runway can handle most narrow-body jets used on domestic routes, but wide-bodies aren't likely to land on it. Its 58,000-square-foot terminal is about a third of the size of a big suburban supermarket. The terminal has no jet bridges and just four parking spots for jetliners. Passengers will have to exit planes on old-fashioned air stairs.

But unpretentious little Branson Airport could have an outsize effect if it works: It could turn what now is a mostly regional tourist spot with only 7,500 year-round residents into a national destination for vacationers. And it could spur other U.S. cities to consider operating their airports privately, a concept widespread in Europe and Latin America and catching on in Asia.

"We've got everything you could want in a vacation destination — all at pretty moderate prices — except our own airport. And now we're getting that," says Johnny Morris, founder of Bass Pro Shops, a privately owned $2 billion-a-year chain of sporting goods stores focused on hunting, fishing, camping and boating that is headquartered in nearby Springfield, Mo. "It's going to open up Branson to a whole new set of people all over the country who would love to come here but really haven't been able to get here before."

Beginning in the 1960s, with a troupe called the Baldknobbers, which mixed corn-pone humor with traditional country and bluegrass music, Branson has grown as a center for live music.

Today, it has 52 theaters that feature traditional country acts, crooners such as Andy Williams and aging pop stars such as Tony Orlando. The Osmonds, the Hughes Brothers, the Duttons and the Lawrence Welk tribe are among the musical "families" who operate year-round theaters or are headliners.

New theme parks have joined the long-running The Shepherd of the Hills drama at an outdoor theater. Three big outlet malls make Branson the third-largest outlet-shopping venue in the USA. There are three lakes: Table Rock, Taneycomo and Bull Shoals.

"We've got more options than anywhere I know of, including Las Vegas," says Morris, whose company is betting heavily on Branson's growth with a big new Bass Pro store downtown and the luxurious Big Cedar Lodge resort and executive conference center on Table Rock Lake 10 miles south of town.

Getting to Branson

But getting here has never been easy. About 95% of Branson's visitors historically have come by car or bus. The nearest airport, in Springfield, is a 52-mile drive.

Glenn Patch realized that more than a decade ago. The former magazine publisher who fell in love with Branson in the early 1990s and acquired 11,000 acres of land — 900 of which are where the new airport sits — figured that if Branson were going to become something bigger, it had to be more accessible.

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