Branson alderman examine housing for foreign students | Local News

The Branson Board of Aldermen heard a presentation about constructing housing for foreign students during their Tuesday, July 12 study session.

The new complex would house J1 students, which are international students coming to America for a “cultural exchange.” The students work in the Branson area, mostly in the hospitality industry, to earn money for their college tuition and for a two week tour of America before they return to their home country.

The presentation by Jack Ryan-Feldman of Baker Tilly Municipal Advisors looked at the history of the project, initial review from the staff, and the due diligence process for the project.

The city received only one response to their request for proposals from Holtz Companies, who built and operates similar facilities in the Wisconsin Dells area.

The project would create around 1,200 beds in a five-building complex, to be located behind Branson Fire Station 3 at 3500 Keeter St. on land owned by the city. The complex would house international students, who would be in Branson about 18 weeks out of the year. The first phase of the construction project would build two dormitory style apartments with approximately 520 beds. Three additional buildings could be placed on the proposed site, if there is enough demand.

The estimated all-in cost is $12.8 million.

Preliminary staff review of the proposal indicated utilities have the capacity to handle the full buildout of the proposal, but the property would need to be replatted. The Branson Fire Department has said they would like to see some green space around the station preserved for possible expansion and for safety.

Ryan-Feldman addressed the due diligence process with the aldermen and covered five main questions:

Is this something our community wants?

Who are these people (i.e. the developer)?

Is the project feasible?

Will our community benefit from the project?

Is an incentive needed for this project?

“We could do a but-for analysis of the project to see if the project would move forward but for having incentives,” Ryan-Feldman said. “This is very instructive because it actually identifies why there is a need for incentives and you can tailor the incentive to the project.

“A lot of times people get in trouble because…they jump past the first four questions and they’re mad about the fifth. A lot of times things can get weeded out by the first four questions before you ever get to the fifth.”

He then walked aldermen through the city’s incentive process. The city requires a pre-funding agreement, which Ryan-Feldman called a “best practice,” where a developer would deposit money into escrow to pay for consultants to cover vetting costs. He said the “but for” test is mandated in the city’s processes, then after that step identify the funding gap and types of available funding but it was brought to the aldermen for consideration and action.

Dan Bullock of the Holtz Companies talked to the alderman about the project, and said according to ImagineBranson.com, as many as 1,500 J-1 students have come to Branson since 2015, and his company believes the number could go up significantly in the coming years.

Mayor Larry Milton then questioned Bullock about costs.

“In addition to the city contributing the land, and the city pays for the consultants for the but-for test, are there any other expenses the city would be asked to pay?” Milton asked.

Bullock then brought up financing for the project. 

“The reason [low-interest financing] is important for a project like this is we commit to keeping the rents at an affordable level, which allows the community the opportunity to attract these students,” Bullock said. “If we obtain three years (of) conventional financing, and rates go up and we have to refinance, it might impact our ability to keep those rates down. Tax abatement is something we’re always interested in.”

He said in other communities they had a 10-year abatement program where taxes would restart after 10 years.

Aldermen showed their support for the project. 

“We get more tourists to Branson than Wisconsin Dells, but they get three to four times the J1 students, who can help in the hospitality industry,” Alderman Cody Fenton said. “Part of this is we don’t have affordable housing for these students. So it’s a real missed opportunity, as I see it, when our entire economy is driven by tourism.”

Milton said Fenton brought up a “great point.”

“How much economic impact would our city have if we had the ability to house 1,248 J1 workers?” Milton said. “To boil it down simply, how many restaurants could open up more sections, more days, more hours, if they had more workers? And this is city-wide.”

Fenton said he went to Wisconsin Dells last year and saw the impact of the housing. He complimented Bullock on his company’s success with this form of housing.

 “To get J1 students is a competitive process and you have to show not only do we have a place for them to sleep, but it’s safe,” Fenton said. “There’s all these criteria which have to be met. So your track record and your ability to get [students] to Wisconsin Dells I think speaks volumes about what you can do.”

Bullock said in the end his company is coming to the community to help draw the J1 students to the community.

Alderman Clay Cooper asked about the number of students Branson has had through the years and was told the biggest year, 2019, had just over 900 students. Post-COVID, the city is estimating about 500 students this year. The aldermen were also told had Branson had more housing for students in 2019, there would have likely been more than 900 students.

Bullock told Milton the upscaling of students is why the project is being proposed in a phased process, so the building growth would come with the student growth.

“The approach we take here, if we go in a phased approach, we will see the growth to support this,” Bullock said.

Bullock said they built a similar structure in Pigeon Forge, TN for Dollywood in about a nine-month time frame.

The board was unable to vote on supporting the project because they were in a study session rather than a regular board meeting, but they provided advice to those involved with the project they were inclined to support the effort. 

The project will move forward with the “but for” test and the information from the test will be provided at a later board meeting.

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