Macon area eyed as site of possible water park
To help land the park, local boosters are asking Bibb County to build an access road across Interstate 75 to property where it could be located.
County Commissioner Sam Hart said county officials support the idea of a water park but are still looking at other possible sites besides the land south of Jennifer Drive next to the Shriner park.
Crossing I-75 could be difficult and expensive because of all the agencies that have to approve such bridges, Hart said.
"There might be things we could do there that would help traffic flow at less cost," he said.
Economic development officials and Kent Buescher, CEO of Wild Adventures, said expansion possibilities are very preliminary and not exclusive to Macon.
"We don't have any specific plans for adding a third park at this time," said Buescher, adding that he is eyeing opportunities across the South. "But Middle Georgia is a place we would have an interest in. ... (It) has a fairly decent population center and is also close to the southern Atlanta market where you've got a lot of activity."
Although he said the company has not yet focused on a particular site, he has not visited any other locations besides the Bibb County tract being proposed. It is next to 240 acres the city of Macon purchased last year for a park using state green-space funds.
Wild Adventures, which started as a petting zoo on Buescher's land, now features rides, wild animals and concert venues on 170 acres in Valdosta. Buescher estimates that 1.4 million to 1.5 million people will visit the park in 2005. According to Amusement Business magazine, Wild Adventures is the fastest-growing theme park in the country.
Financial analysts estimate Wild Adventures brings in between $20 million and $39 million in revenue annually.
"Buescher is a brilliant business person, and I think Macon would be very fortunate to have one of his properties," said Janice Marshall, president and CEO of the Macon-Bibb County Convention and Visitors Bureau.
In 2004, Adventure Parks Group LLC was formed to encompass both Wild Adventures and Cypress Gardens park in Winter Haven, Fla. The state's oldest theme park, Cypress Gardens had just closed its gates when it was purchased and overhauled by Buescher's company.
Buescher said his company cannot open more parks until it resolves a dispute with its insurance company over $25 million in damage to Cypress Gardens from three hurricanes last year.
A tornado spun off by Hurricane Wilma caused $200,000 in additional damage to the park's concert venue this fall, he said.
Erik Klingelhofer, a Mercer University professor, sent a letter to the Bibb County Commission last week indicating Buescher's willingness to build an amusement park if the county extends either Jordan Lake Road or Bloomfield Drive Extension across I-75.
In an interview Tuesday, Buescher said he hasn't committed to any particular location but admitted poor access would be a deal-breaker for the Bibb County site.
A new interstate exit is being constructed in the same area but will not be completed for several years.
Marshall said she's "very excited that they're to the point they're looking for a location and looking for help with road work."
"Along with Bass Pro Shops, this would be a boon for Middle Georgia," she said.
In his letter to the commission, Klingelhofer wrote, "We would like to present this road project to the Commission as soon as possible, so that Wild Adventures will see the advantages of placing a theme park here instead of Warner Robins."
Ned Sanders, Houston County Commission chairman, said he is unaware of any attempt to lure a theme park to the Warner Robins area. Efforts to reach Warner Robins Mayor Donald Walker were unsuccessful Tuesday.
Klingelhofer and Macon attorney Russell Boston have been working since 2003 to find potential amusement park locations in downtown Macon, Boston said.
"My thinking is, we need something bigger to motivate families to come from far and wide to Bibb County and visit our museums," Boston said.
The Macon Economic Development Commission helped search for good park sites, said commission CEO Pat Topping. But the area behind Central City Park where they first focused on didn't work because of wetlands rules, the potential route of the Eisenhower Extension road project, the challenge of coordinating multiple owners and other problems, Boston and Topping said.
"We were looking for at least 200 to 300 acres and were trying to keep it as close to downtown as possible," Topping said.
Boston declined to say who owns the property being pitched for the park now, but he said he and Klingelhofer have no financial interest in it. Topping said he doesn't know who owns it.
Buescher said full-scale theme parks are usually about four hours apart, so Macon is too close to Valdosta for that. But water parks often draw from a smaller, 60-mile area.
Although locations north of Valdosta have shorter operating seasons, Macon has advantages such as its proximity to interstates and its distance from hurricane-prone areas, Buescher said.
"There was a time when I would have thought I'd move farther south in Florida," Buescher said.
"But there's such tremendous risk. Insurance has almost doubled."
Buescher said his company would be seeking tax incentives from local governments if it starts a new park, but he said the trade-off is that Wild Adventures generates local revenue much like a major league sports franchise.
Cindy Tori, associate professor of economics at Valdosta State University, said every dollar spent in a theme park generates about 40 cents more to the local economy.
According to the Georgia Department of Economic Development, Wild Adventures has an estimated $176 million economic impact on the region annually.
Marshall said a water park would attract a different type of audience than many of Macon's current attractions do by drawing more children and families. Diversifying makes the city a more sellable destination, she said.
A water park would mean new jobs, too. For every 24 people a theme park employs, about four more jobs are created in the surrounding community, Tori said.
Wild Adventures in Valdosta employs 350 employees year-round and more than 700 during peak season, including contractors and part-time workers.
Source : Macon