Alabama's Branson? Country Crossings' differences

BRANSON, MO (WSFA) - Branson, Missouri is the gold standard when it comes to family entertainment. Now-a-days, a $200 million entertainment complex under construction in Dothan is often compared to Branson, but there are a couple of major differences between the two, and one of them is controversial in some circles.

With it's 40 performing theaters and more than 100 shows going on at any given time Branson attracts about 8 million visitors each year! It's consistently one of the top three RV destinations in the United States. "People can come here and, with their families, enjoy the mountains and the water and golf courses and shopping," said Branson Chamber of Commerce President Ross Summers, and...our live entertainment is a huge part of it."

About 700 miles away from Branson, down in southeast Alabama, the $200 million Country Crossings Entertainment development is under construction just outside Dothan. It's often compared to Branson. "We don't want to be Branson, Missouri," said developer Ronnie Gilley. "Branson, Missouri is a spectacular place to go. They have done an incredible job of marketing themselves."

Country Crossings is the brainchild of Enterprise real estate developer and music promoter Ronnie Gilley. He says, contrary to Branson, Country Crossings plans to feature current country stars. "Any Thursday, Friday, Saturday night of the week," he explained, " that you choose to come to Country Crossings in Houston County, Alabama, you'll be guaranteed to see a multi-platinum selling country music artist perform there...We have that by bound contractual agreements with our artists we have signed to our record labels."

The master plan includes the George Jones Possum Holler Bed and Breakfast, resort hotels, retail shopping, a music-themed family water park, and of course, several performance theaters for live shows and a 10,000-seat amphitheater.

But the biggest difference between Country Crossing and Branson? Electronic bingo. In Missouri voters defeated a well-financed campaign to bring bingo to Branson. "We feel that folks that come here are not searching for that, that's what our customer tell us over and over again," explained Branson mayor Raeanne Presley.

Back in Dothan, Gilley says bingo only came into the picture at Country Crossings when the economy started to tank and investors started pulling out. "...Our project came to a screeching halt, to say the least, right then. It was bam, out of nowhere and the project was dead. Then we received a phone call and the gist of the phone call was 'Have you considered electronic bingo on your project?' Mr. Howell, I had no earthly idea what electronic bingo was, and really to a degree today, I perhaps I still wish I didn't know what electronic bingo was," he went on. "We had no earthly idea what kind of can of worms we were opening up."

Gilley said if the project could've been done without bingo "...This place would have been open a year ago." He said it would have been impossible, however. "We didn't have an economic catalyst or a vehicle to bring this project to fruition without bingo."

According to Gilley, when Governor Bob Riley formed his Illegal gambling task force, the new investors who were banking on bingo backed out. bob Howell:

Gilley was blunt with his answer when asked if his project was in jeopardy from an investment standpoint. "Absolutely....should the governor's task force prevail. Should we get an adverse supreme court ruling - this project is over and goes to Mississippi."

Down in Dothan, losing a major investment with thousands of jobs and millions of dollars in tax revenue is the last thing the Houston County Commission wants to hear, especially during these difficult economic times.

On Thursday night we'll look at what's at stake and Gilley's opinion of Governor Riley's quest to end electronic bingo in Alabama.