Warsaw is refocusing efforts on its tourism development and seeing big results
When Warsaw was first settled, the Osage River played a big role in the area’s success as a pipeline for immigration and commerce. In modern times, the river and lake are still the most important resources for the area, but in a different way.
Tourism is king in Warsaw, and the economy depends on the Osage River and Truman Lake as recreational resources. Benton County has more than 1,000 miles of lake coastline and more than 1,000 miles of river access, but the City of Warsaw and Benton County as a whole have just started to take advantage of this valuable resource to draw new business and grow existing ones.
“You couldn’t rent a bike or kayak ten years ago,” says Irv Jensen, executive director of the Benton County Development Corporation.
Today, renting a bike or kayak is easy. In fact, one of the biggest business success stories in Warsaw has been Truman Lake Bikes. The small bike shop has tripled its sales since it opened three years ago. And the area has expanded its biking trails and is now recognized as a mountain biking destination.
The county also passed a tourism tax that has helped push tourism and economic development in the area. Tourism dollars were stagnant before the tax, which is charged on vacation rentals such as hotels and cabins, Jensen says. Tourism expenditures have increased $1.5 million in the past year, and sales tax revenue for the city has consistently increased. According to the Benton County Clerk’s Office, 2 percent of the tourism tax dollars are allocated to the county and the rest goes toward tourism development, which includes expanding recreational areas and improving Warsaw’s downtown.
Warsaw’s beautification efforts earned recognition by the state in 2002 with an Excellence in Redevelopment Award for Public Improvements.
Rachael Sherrer, director of the Warsaw Area Chamber of Commerce, says the natural beauty of the area, emphasis in the community to buy locally, waterfront properties, and beautification efforts to improve the downtown, like the new town sound system and sidewalks, help attract businesses. Just last year, Warsaw added 25 new full-time service jobs as a result of development on Harbor Village, a health and wellness center that houses Katy Trail Community Health.
While most businesses in Warsaw are independent restaurants, campgrounds, or resorts, manufacturing is up and coming, too, and Sherrer says that’s something that is much-needed in the area.
“We have land and assets ready for large scale businesses to move in,” Sherrer says.
One of the largest employers in Warsaw, Hurricane Manufacturing, doubled its size and added 15,000 square feet to its facility this year. But the need for more manufacturing jobs is evident when you note that Benton County has a 7 percent unemployment rate. Also, an American Community Survey reveals that Benton County residents have an above average commute time when compared to the state and national levels.
In April 2007 a local program declared all of Benton County an enhanced enterprise zone, meaning businesses are able to get property tax relief if they meet certain requirements. There are seven business districts in Warsaw and an industrial park. Benton County is scouting a second industrial park for the area.
According to Jensen, Benton County is the fastest-growing county in the region and much of its growth comes from those retiring. Although Warsaw is officially home to only 4,000, the city serves more than 19,500 people. The population pushes more than 30,000 during the summer, and the fireworks show and Heritage Days festival easily draw 20,000 in a single weekend.
With the influx of retirees and tourists choosing Warsaw over Table Rock Lake and the Lake of the Ozarks, Jensen predicts more manufacturing jobs will follow.
“It’s just starting,” he says, “There is more to come. Of all the places in Missouri that could really take off, we are there.”