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Table Rock Lake and the cost of economic activity

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Kathleen O’Dell’s article about the economic impact of Table Rock Lake in today’s Springfield News-Leader, entitled “Table Rock Dam Gives Much Back to Area,” covers a lot of ground in describing the various kinds of economic activities that are related to the construction and continued existence of Table Rock Lake.

In an economic sense, is the Table Rock Lake area fit (efficient and nimble) or obese (expensive to maintain and subject to falls)? As pointed out below, the two counties most affected by Table Rock Lake have experienced the area’s lowest growth in per capita income from 1990 through 2003. My guess is that the tourism industry surrounding the lake produces population growth but not much in the way of good jobs. Some of the population growth is accounted for by the semi-retired, who may be reflected in the employment statistics, though they are working sporadically at low-wage jobs.

Millions of people have had great times on Table Rock Lake. An ecologist would shudder at the habitat destruction caused by the lake. But an economist would look at the investment and the returns and ask several questions that are not raised or addressed in the News-Leader article:

  • Compared to what? Suppose that in the period 1955 to 1960, $35 million had been invested in Taney and Stone counties in some other combination of things, such as the improvement of US 65 that didn’t occur until the late 1960s and early 1970s, educational improvements, and sewer systems. Of course, the public works projects that are funded first are those whose backers have the most political clout, which may not be the best for the country or for the locality where the money is spent.
  • Who were the winners and losers? Obviously, there were huge construction and engineering contracts awarded to Black & Veach and Burns & McDonnell, both of Kansas City. Many property owners were able to sell their homes and farms at prices that my have been more than they could have otherwise received, assuming that they wanted to sell. Equally obvious is that the cost of construction and land acquisition was paid by the taxpayers of the United States, with the local contribution tiny. Many local people got the best jobs that they ever had during the construction period.
  • Who gets the electricity generated? It’s marketed by the Southwest Power Administration and put on a very national grid. Stone and  Taney counties had electricity before Table Rock was built, and without the dam they would still have electricity, possibly at greater cost.
  • Who gets the money from the sale of the electricity generated, other than the shareholders of Empire District Electric Company and other utilities and coop members?

Digging deeper, the economist would look at the role of Table Rock Lake in the creation of an enlarged tourist economy, beginning in the late 1950s. Peter Herschend indicates in his quoted remarks in the article that Table Rock Lake was a huge boost to Silver Dollar City. The Shepherd of the Hills Homestead & Farm, with its long-running outdoor theater production, also got its start while Table Rock Lake was under construction. Branson’s music show industry also got its start at this time.  Where would Bass Pro Shops be without Table  Rock Lake? A massive public works project benefits most those who have the capital, industry, ingenuity and proximity to benefit from it.

In 1950, Stone and Taney counties each had a population of just under 10,000. The 2008 estimate is 47,000 for Taney County and 31,000 for Stone. Since Table Rock Lake was constructed, the two-county population has increased by 400%.

Would this have happened without Table Rock Lake?

Without Table Rock, Stone and Taney counties’ population growth would probably resemble the counties on the east and west, Barry and Ozark, whose population has roughly doubled rather than quadrupled in the same time span. Many people in Taney and Stone County would say that they enjoyed life more when the population was half what it is now (and the lakes were nicer in some ways). However, the half that wasn’t here then would either say they wish they had lived here then or that they either like it or don’t like it now.

High rates of population growth are expensive, especially in a tourist economy. Schools are in continuous land acquisition and building programs, with a lot of the added capacity needed just to accommodate students who only stay for a year or two. Irreversible destruction of natural resources occurs, as the water table is drawn down and land in less intensive uses is cleared and paved (rapid runoff necessitated the $200 million addition of floodgates at Table Rock Dam a few years ago), which creates local flooding and contamination of surface water.

It would be difficult to design a geographical pattern of residential development more expensive in the long run than lakeside development, from the standpoint of wastewater collection and treatment, road construction and maintenance, utility line construction and maintenance, police and fire protection, ambulance services, school transportation, and trash collection. If we can’t finance this expense with sales tax growth, property taxes and service fees will have to rise or services will be cut.

States and local governments, school systems and health-care organizations must add employees and facilities to cope with population growth and tourism and are saddled with permanent costs of maintenance and repair, regardless of whether the population and revenues grow apace.

Todd Parnell’s comments in the News-Leader article indicated his own ambivalence about Table Rock Lake. His writings elsewhere show that his own love of free-flowing rivers and his family’s role in banking in Southwest Missouri have been in conflict. Many of us experience these contradictions in our own lives.

Maybe the bottom line, ignoring the environmental cost, is the growth in per capita income. Per capita income in Southwest Missouri lagged for those counties with higher numbers of employees in the tourism sector according to these figures compiled from census data:
SW MO Population, Employment and Income trends

Maybe the economic development ideal that we should put first is not growth but health.

What do you think?


About Harry Styron

I'm a lawyer and mediator who lives in Branson, Missouri, whose professional interests involve real estate, nonprofits, and local government. As of 2022, I'm shrinking my legal practice so that I have more time to mediate real estate disputes. I'm happy to mediate using video platforms like Zoom and WebEx, or in person anywhere in Missouri.

6 responses »

  1. White Christians have got to have someplace to go play.

    • Jim,
      We all need places to play, work and sleep. I’m not sure of your point.

      Are you implying that the people who visit the Table Rock Lake area reflect the race and religious preferences of overwhelming majority of the people who live within 500 miles of it? You could say the same thing about the casinos in Kansas City and St. Louis.

  2. I recently came across your blog and have been reading along. I thought I would leave my first comment. I dont know what to say except that I have enjoyed reading. Nice blog. I will keep visiting this blog.

  3. don’t know if you made a point. please have no fear of progress. Necessity is our mother of invention. if you are creating necessities in the Tablerock area, inventions will be created to take care of them. As a result, the lifestyle of everyone who lives in or just visits Tablerock will improve. Hallelujah! leh

    • I don’t fear progress or doubt the ingenuity of people to adapt.

      My point is that we have many alternatives to choose from as we progress. We ought to choose alternatives that will keep taxes low, preserve natural resources, and improve our earning ability. Population growth by itself is not attractive.

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