Johnny Morris Secures Dogpatch Deal. Branson’s Beloved Amusement Park Finds New Owner

Introduction

Dogpatch USA was a popular theme park located in northwest Arkansas that operated from 1968 to 1993. The park was founded by Albert Raney Sr. and was inspired by the Li’l Abner comic strip, featuring characters and themes from the fictional town of Dogpatch. At its peak in the 1970s, Dogpatch USA attracted up to half a million visitors a year. However, attendance eventually declined due to economic conditions and competition from other theme parks. Dogpatch USA closed in 1993 after filing for bankruptcy.

Johnny Morris is an American businessman and conservationist who is the founder of Bass Pro Shops. Born in Springfield, Missouri in 1948, Morris began fishing as a young boy and opened the first Bass Pro Shops store in 1971. Through the growth of Bass Pro Shops, Morris became a leading retailer in outdoor sporting goods and a prominent figure in conservation efforts. In 2017, Morris purchased the abandoned Dogpatch USA property with plans to redevelop it into a new attraction.

History of Dogpatch USA

vintage photo of dogpatch usa entrance

Dogpatch USA was founded in 1968 in northern Arkansas along State Highway 7 between the cities of Harrison and Jasper, an area known today as Marble Falls (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Dogpatch_USA). The theme park was based on the comic strip Li’l Abner by cartoonist Al Capp, which was set in a fictional village called Dogpatch (https://www.thv11.com/article/news/dogpatch-usa-iconic-attraction-arkansas-whats-next/91-28efd469-79a2-446d-bc7e-c70ebf7a7308). Dogpatch USA featured characters and themes from the comic strip brought to life in amusement park rides and attractions. It originally opened in May 1968 with investor funding and Capp’s support.

Heyday and Decline

Dogpatch USA opened in 1968 and saw increasing popularity throughout the 1970s. Attendance peaked around 350,000 visitors in 1974 (wikipedia.org/wiki/Dogpatch_USA). The park was inspired by the famous comic strip Li’l Abner by Al Capp and featured characters and themes from the series. However, by the 1980s, attendance figures began dropping. According to abandonedar.com, a consulting firm had projected 400,000 annual visitors but actual numbers fell far short of that. Dogpatch USA struggled to retain guests and compete with other regional theme parks. By the end of the 1980s, annual attendance declined to just over 100,000.

Closure in 1993

dogpatch usa abandoned rollercoaster
Despite being a major tourist attraction in Arkansas for decades, Dogpatch USA started struggling with declining attendance in the late 1980s. Several factors contributed to this, including the opening of other regional theme parks that pulled visitors away. The park was also located in a remote part of the Ozark Mountains, making access difficult for many tourists.

By the early 1990s, annual attendance at Dogpatch had dropped below 300,000 visitors. The owners tried various strategies to turn things around, including new rides and attractions. However, the declining numbers made it impossible to sustain ongoing operations. With heavy debt and high operating costs, Dogpatch finally closed its gates in 1993 after nearly 40 years in business.

The park’s closure was a major economic blow to the region. At its peak, Dogpatch had employed over 300 people and brought substantial tourism revenue to the area. The abandoned amusement park sat empty for over a decade after it shut down. Several attempts to reopen or redevelop the property all failed during the 1990s and early 2000s.

Johnny Morris Biography

Johnny Morris is the founder and CEO of Bass Pro Shops, a major U.S. retailer of hunting, fishing, camping and other outdoor recreation merchandise. Born in 1948 in Springfield, Missouri, Morris began fishing as a young boy and selling homemade fishing lures at the age of 14. In 1972, Morris founded Bass Pro Shops when he opened a small fishing shop in Springfield. Through his entrepreneurial drive and passion for the outdoors, Morris grew Bass Pro Shops from its humble beginnings into a leading outdoor gear retailer with over 200 locations across North America today.

Morris is still very involved with the company he founded and serves as CEO of Bass Pro Shops. He has been noted for his conservation efforts including protecting wetlands and sponsoring youth programs that connect children with nature. Morris has a net worth estimated at $4.5 billion, making him one of the wealthiest people in Missouri.

Morris Buys Dogpatch Property

johnny morris portrait

In 2014, wealthy businessman and conservationist Johnny Morris purchased the abandoned Dogpatch USA property in northwest Arkansas for $2 million (source). The theme park had been closed since 1993 after declining attendance and financial issues. Morris, the founder of Bass Pro Shops, has a deep appreciation for nature and saw potential in reviving the rundown property.

Morris purchased the 420-acre site near his childhood hometown with plans to preserve the natural beauty and transform it into an attraction focused on outdoor recreation. Though the details were still vague in 2014, Morris imagined creating hiking and biking trails, a wildlife refuge, and educational facilities that connect people with nature. His purchase of the long-dormant Dogpatch USA property marked the first step in reimagining the site.

Vision for Redevelopment

In September 2021, Johnny Morris unveiled plans to redevelop the former Dogpatch USA amusement park into a nature resort called Marble Falls (https://armoneyandpolitics.com/bass-pro-founder-plans-for-dogpatch-usa/). The $140 million project will see the abandoned amusement park transformed into a 1,000-acre nature getaway focused on conservation, education and recreational opportunities.

According to the plans, Marble Falls will include hiking and biking trails, an aquarium, a chapel, overnight lodging, and dining options. The goal is to provide visitors with a connection to nature while promoting conservation. For example, the ruins of the old theme park will be repurposed and integrated into nature trails.

In an interview, Morris said, “Our hope is to breathe new life into this land in a way that honors its roots, brings back the joy it once gave families, respects the wilderness and also inspires people to conserve what we cannot recreate” (https://www.ky3.com/2021/10/27/johnny-morris-unveils-plans-former-dogpatch-theme-park/).

Progress So Far

Although full redevelopment of the former Dogpatch USA property will take years, some new facilities have already been built. In December 2020, a large outdoor adventure park opened on the site featuring hiking, biking, and climbing activities. This area called Marble Falls at Dogpatch offers miles of natural surface trails for hiking and mountain biking. There is also a via ferrata climbing course and several zip lines spanning over 1,500 feet in length. The park aims to provide outdoor recreation opportunities for visitors while also serving as a preview of future redevelopment plans.

hikers at marble falls nature park

In addition, new lodging has been constructed including both tents and tiny cabins that guests can rent. These lodging options allow visitors to stay overnight and experience the park. A welcome center has also been built that includes a gift shop, cafe, and information about the history of Dogpatch USA. While the full vision is still years away, these initial recreational facilities demonstrate progress towards redeveloping this iconic Arkansas amusement park.

Future Plans

Dogpatch has several major developments slated for the coming years that will further transform the neighborhood. The Potrero Power Station project, which broke ground in 2021, will add over 2,600 residential units, 1.2 million square feet of commercial space, and 24 acres of parks and open space along the waterfront over multiple phases (Potrero Power Station Development Breaks Ground in Dogpatch – San Francisco YIMBY). The Pier 70 project nearby will also continue to add mixed-use buildings, parks, and public spaces in the coming years (Raising the Bar for the Future of San Francisco’s Pier 70).

The city also adopted the Central Waterfront/Dogpatch Public Realm Plan in 2022, which provides a framework for future public space improvements such as widened sidewalks, traffic calming measures, and new parks and plazas (Central Waterfront/Dogpatch Public Realm Plan). These major developments promise to bring more housing, jobs, open space, and amenities to Dogpatch while integrating the neighborhood with the surrounding waterfront.

Conclusion

In summary, yes Johnny Morris, founder of Bass Pro Shops, did purchase the abandoned Dogpatch USA amusement park property in Newton County, Arkansas in 2021. After sitting vacant for nearly 30 years, the once popular theme park based on Al Capp’s Li’l Abner comic strip was acquired by Morris with plans to redevelop the land into a nature park and public preserve.

Morris, a conservationist and outdoor enthusiast, sees great potential in restoring the natural beauty of the Ozark Mountains in northwest Arkansas. His goal is to create an immersive nature experience honoring the pioneer spirit of the region. Though plans are still in early stages, the proposed Marble Falls Nature Park will likely include features similar to Morris’ Dogwood Canyon Nature Park near Branson, Missouri.

While the heyday of Dogpatch USA has long passed, its history and charm still captivate many. Johnny Morris’ purchase of the property opens an exciting new chapter focused on conservation and outdoor recreation. Only time will tell what ultimately becomes of this storied Arkansas landmark under new ownership.

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