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Branson Boat Goes Bananas

Riverboat promoters in a country-music mecca make a big splash with a fish-friendly launch

L. J. DELCAMBRE'S anticipation rivaled that of a man about to be married. The huge showboat he and his crew of welders had been building all summer at Table Rock Lake in Branson, Mo. was about to take its first swim.

Hundreds of spectators were on hand, and some helped peel the two tons of bananas it would take to ensure a smooth ride from land to lake. The fruit lubricated three slanted rails, onto which the boat was lowered. Bulldozers stood at attention in the hot sun, ready to give it a push if gravity didn't take over when the holding straps were severed.

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But the bananas did the trick. With Mr. Delcambre on board, the boat slid into the water in just a few seconds longer than it takes to say ``I do.'' Entertainer Kenny Rogers, co-sponsor of the project, was caught up in a phone conversation and nearly missed it. A crowd of onlooking boaters erupted into celebratory cheers, honks, and whistles.

Almost a football-field long, the Showboat Branson Belle, which will offer tours of Table Rock Lake, sit-down meals, and entertainment, is billed as the largest excursion vessel on a landlocked waterway.

The bananas - an alternative to oil, and apparently good fish food - weren't just a gimmick. Turn-of-the-last-century in style, this ``riverboat'' incorporates current environmental thinking in order to be lake-friendly. Clean-burning fuel made out of soybeans will power the huge red paddle wheels, the insulated engines won't create a din, and no waste water will empty into the lake.

Silver Dollar City Inc., the developer, has been in the Ozarks for decades and has ``never walked away from ... protecting not only our heritage but our environment,'' says Lisa Rau, a company spokeswoman. The company, well aware of Branson's emphasis on family-style, not Las Vegas, entertainment, studiously avoided gambling in its proposal and welcomed community input.

Filling the theaters along Branson's main drag, West Highway 76, are both young and old. Big-name stars such as Barbara Mandrell and Kenny Rogers play regularly at the Grand Palace, built by Silver Dollar City in 1992. But businesses here hope that the showboat will complement this almost single-minded focus on country music by reintroducing visitors to the lakes that are considered the backbone of their economy.

Even those who aren't happy about the fast-paced development of Branson take, at worst, a neutral position on the showboat. Bill Sheriff, a member of the environmental group Friends of Lake Taneycomo, says, ``The developers have really devastated it down here.... They get everything out of their way fast, including trees,'' causing runoff problems. But the Silver Dollar City people, he says, ``have put their money where their mouth is'' on environmental sensitivity.

The Branson Belle wouldn't be here (and neither would the lake, for that matter) if it weren't for one other silent partner: the United States Army Corps of Engineers.

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The corps created the lake by damming the White River in the 1950s for flood control and hydroelectric purposes. The corps, which leases property and licenses activity on the lake, solicited a project to make it more accessible to tourists.

The showboat proposal ``went beyond our wildest dreams,'' says Richard Groves, a corps spokesman. Though his colleagues had conservative enough dreams to require only a 30-passenger minimum capacity, Silver Dollar City proposed up to 1,000.

``As long as they don't pollute that water, 1,000 people can go out on that boat and just tear it [the lake] to pieces. You get up the next morning and it's ... back smooth and slick and lookin' good,'' Mr. Groves says.

And if you drop a banana overboard, don't worry. The fish are used to those now.

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