Silver Dollar City investing in employee housing by Holtz Builders

AT: Tim Baldwin

BRANSON, Mo. — When acquiring and retaining staff at theme parks continues to be an industry concern, Silver Dollar City is being proactive. The park is partnering with the Wisconsin-based Holtz Builders to construct an on-grounds residence hall, adjacent to the park. The new three-story, dorm-like project will house temporary seasonal hosts. This forward-thinking approach to staffing helps Silver Dollar City go beyond Branson’s borders.

“The last few years have been difficult, and there’s no way to sugarcoat it,” said John Zajac, director of human resources. “That said, I could not be more proud of Silver Dollar City and our parent company, Herschend Family Entertainment, for their dedication to our employees. We launched GROW U in 2022, which allows our employees to get their college degree at little to no expense to themselves based on their degree. As our CEO Andrew Wexler said: ‘Whether it’s to pursue a new dream or advance their career with us, we care about our employees’ personal and professional growth, because we believe that their futures should be grown with love, not loans.’ In a really difficult period, our company showed what was most important, our people.”

“Affordable and easily accessible housing for our student programs is an ongoing challenge,” said Brad Thomas, president, Silver Dollar City. “The residence hall is needed today and is a critical part of our business strategy as we continue to grow and expand our operating calendar. Student programs are very important to our summer operations.”

“In a major tourist town like Branson, it can definitely be difficult,” Zajac added. “The population here and in our surrounding communities isn’t that large, but what we lack in quantity, we certainly make up in quality. We have genuinely friendly people who strive to provide Ozark hospitality to the millions of people who come to visit annually. This is why a housing facility like the one we will open this year is so very important. It provides us the opportunity to attract wonderful people from outside our region with great jobs coupled with great accommodations at an affordable price.”  

The project will accommodate around 300 students. Standard rooms will house up to four students with four beds, individual lockers, a private bathroom, a large refrigerator, Wi-Fi, a study desk and self-contained heating and air. A change in design learned in Tennessee is separate bathrooms from showers in each room. Additionally, the hall will have two common kitchens with gathering spaces and laundry facilities. Indoor and outdoor recreational areas will provide open spaces for games and gatherings. The branch of Holtz Companies that owns and operates the employee housing is International Residence Hall.

Holtz Builders has established partnerships in resort communities to create safe, efficient and affordable housing for seasonal workers and is no stranger to Herschend Family Entertainment. The group previously developed a housing complex for sister Park Dollywood in Tennessee.

Amusement Today asked Dan Bullock, president of Holtz Companies, how the partnership with Herschend was initiated. “It started in Sevier County, Tennessee, with the Wilderness Resort. The folks at Dollywood heard about it and even toured the facility. That’s how the conversation began,” he answered.

“Dollywood has been an amazing organization to work with,” said Bullock. “Great people, great philosophy … we have such a great relationship because we have so many similarities between our organizations and the values that we hold.”

“For Dollywood, the international dorm has been a game changer,” said Pete Owens, vice president, marketing, Dollywood. “As our market continues to grow, the demand for finding employees becomes harder. With IRH, we are able to control our own destiny with students we locate from outside this area to fill available positions. In 2022, thank to IRH, we were close to 100 percent staffed.”

Of the three stories, two will be residential. The first floor will have gathering places and commercial amenities.

“The joint kitchen/dining space will be an important gathering space where students can dine together and prepare their own meals,” said Thomas. “In addition, residents will be able to enjoy special meals, activities and events that our employees have come to love and expect.”  

“The community area is very big,” said Bullock. “One of the things we’ve found is that cooking is a social activity — it is a sharing of culture and sharing of food.”

Silver Dollar City has provided the tract of land to Holtz for the project, with Holtz constructing and managing the new property. The site is adjacent to the park and has previously been used for festival storage, with a small piece of land for employee parking. Residents in the new lodging will be able to walk or bike to the theme park.

“This facility is more than just employee housing. Having had the opportunity to tour other facilities operated by IRH, you can feel the sense of community and togetherness,” Zajac told AT. “I think this is really driven home when you walk through one of their community kitchens and gathering spaces. You see people of very diverse backgrounds genuinely learning and enjoying spending time with one another. Our facility will house students from our internship program (Silver Dollar UniverCity), which tend to be domestic students, but it will be shared with students from Bridge USA, the J1 summer work/study program among others as well.

“Much like the employee community on our park, it’s just a really special thing to watch that happen. To see people from very different backgrounds starting off as acquaintances, then becoming friends and, finally, family.”

“Our Silver Dollar City, White Water and Showboat employees are known to care for each other,” said Thomas. “That care extends not only to our longer-term employees and their relationships with each other but also their relationship to our student workers. In addition, we know that this housing will allow these students to develop strong friendships and relationships with each other.”   

“The J1 visa program is a cultural exchange program,” said Bullock. “Students who come through that program work, but the basis of the program is cultural exchange, and we need to be very focused on making sure we are delivering a top-notch experience, to be creating ambassadors.”

“We strive to be a great place to work for great people,” said Thomas. “We are hopeful that these students will enjoy their jobs, enjoy the beauty — and the fun! — of the Ozark Mountains. We also  look forward to some of these students falling in love with not only our park for one or more semesters but also seeing the career opportunities which exist with the continued growth of both The Silver Dollar City Company and the growth of Herschend Family Entertainment.”

The facility has 24/7 staffing, with someone always at the front desk and full video monitoring. While there is a small group of full-time staffing, residents play a role in the well-being of the facility.

“One of the things we are very adamant about is clear expectations,” said Bullock. “Be a good person, treat others the way you’d want your family to be treated, pick up after yourself, help others. We set those basic ground rules. We don’t have many issues. We feel: ‘We want you back; we want you here year after year and to have a good experience.’ We take that extra step. That’s the culture we like to cultivate.”

Bullock is inspired by Holtz Companies’ founder, Tom Holtz. “Tom Holtz’ purpose in life is to take care of people. That’s who he is. Herschend shares that philosophy,” he said.

“We most enjoy creating and operating housing developments that become ‘communities’ for student residents,” said Holtz. “Our mission is to create lasting relationships, and we are in this project with Silver Dollar City for many years to come.”  

This article appears in the  FEBRUARY 2023 issue of Amusement Today.
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