Landfills don’t sound like fun. But, just wait till you hear what’s in store for the one at 19th Avenue & Buckeye Road. Would you believe roller coasters, water rides, skiiing and snowboarding?
(Courtesy of Emily Gersema – Arizona Republic)
The amusement park proposed for south Phoenix has excited city officials and some residents for months, but so far, the developers behind it have shown no indication as to when or whether the park will be built.
In October, Jorge “George” Adan Cordova, a representative of a limited liability company, Catalyst Land Holdings, pitched the idea of a giant indoor theme park to a Phoenix City Council subcommittee. The park would cover the former 213-acre landfill at 19th Avenue and Buckeye Road with roller coasters, a water-park section and a “cold zone” where visitors could ski or snowboard on the slopes any time, even when temperatures rise above 100 degrees.
The four-member Downtown Aviation and Economy Subcommittee unanimously approved creation of the lease for the former landfill. But no lease has been drafted, said Sina Matthes, a city spokeswoman.
Earlier this month, Councilman Michael Nowakowski, who represents Laveen and a portion of central Phoenix, led a public forum to discuss the theme park with residents, most of whom expressed hope that such a project could clean up and revitalize the dusty industrial area where some companies mine gravel.
Cordova and one of the developers behind the proposal, Chadwic Gifford, have not responded to repeated phone calls seeking comment.
Although city officials and some residents have high hopes for the indoor theme park, the odds are against Catalyst. The state has a history of fantastic theme-park pitches that appear and disappear like sparks, often because property and funding for such lofty proposals are so hard to obtain.
The recent string of theme-park ideas sprouted because of legislation more than five years ago that then-Gov. Janet Napolitano and the Legislature approved to ease construction costs with municipal tax-exempt bonds.
Cordova was one of the lobbyists behind the idea, which required the business or partners that proposed a theme park to come up with $500 million for it before a city could issue any bonds for the project. Also, the business or partners must find a developer to handle the project.
A single theme-park taxing district is allowed for each city, and every district is overseen by a board.
The law also includes a provision to help private investment groups finance a theme park by charging an extra 9 percent sales tax on the park’s rides, concerts or other sales.
The law will expire on Dec. 31, 2013.
After Napolitano signed the measure into law in 2005, several parks were proposed:
- Developers Richard Mladik and Jeffrey Hug, in 2006, proposed Waveyard, a water-adventure park that would be located in Mesa near Loops 202 and 101.
The giant park was supposed to have opened in January 2010, but the recession forced the developers to scale back plans to create an outdoor sports park near the new Chicago Cubs stadium.
- In 2008, developers also hoped to take advantage of the municipal bonds and proposed an $800 million music theme park in Eloy, 65 miles south of downtown Phoenix. Their plan for Decades Music Theme Park was spiked when the recession hit.
- Cordova was involved with a company, Grand Canyon Theme Park Holdings, that wanted to build two theme parks – one outside of Williams and a second in Phoenix. The company had hoped to qualify for the municipal bonds. Those parks have not been built.
Dale Larsen, an Arizona State University professor in community resource and development, said theme parks have trouble getting off the ground in Arizona for a few reasons.
Many families usually plan theme-park trips to Disneyland, SeaWorld and other California parks because they are an easy drive or quick flight from Arizona, he said.
Also, Arizona is known for its natural attractions, he said. Amusement parks have a hard time competing with “the greatest park, our Grand Canyon,” Larsen said.
Mladik said he has learned through planning Waveyard for the past five years that three other big hurdles for theme-park development in Arizona are money, location and climate.
Capital funding for a large park, which costs hundreds of millions of dollars, became impossible to obtain during the recession. Although banks and investors are starting to loosen their grip, “it is still extremely difficult,” Mladik said.
Even if you have the money for building a fantastic park, Mladik said you had better have a prime location.
He has heard economic researchers say to him, “You don’t take a bad site and put a good project on it and make it a good site.”
For example, Mladik said: “The last major theme park that was built in the United States was the Hard Rock Park in Myrtle Beach, (S.C.). It failed miserably because it had a bad location.”
But in Arizona, climate is the most difficult issue for developers, Mladik said. Summer heat takes hold during prime family-vacation season.
“Arizona has been considered a very hostile theme-park environment,” he said. “Your typical theme-park visitor is a family with children. And the peak season for theme parks is in the summer. They make over 90 percent of their revenues in the summer, which is our most inhospitable time of the year.”
Water parks fare better than roller-coaster parks in the state because they can attract children when school is out during summer.
Several major theme-park companies, including Disney, have considered building here. “All the major players have analyzed this market backwards and forwards because we are the largest metropolitan area in the United States without a major theme park,” Mladik said.
Phoenix officials and residents are hopeful that an indoor destination park like the one by Catalyst could give their children something to do on their days off, their teens somewhere to work their first job, and be the spark for new development.
“I know many parents here would like to see their kids get a job,” said Councilman Michael Johnson, who represents downtown and south Phoenix.
Nowakowski remains hopeful for the project.
“They have come up with an investor,” Nowakowski said of Catalyst. “But I can’t tell you who it is because we have a confidentiality agreement.”
He is running for re-election this year, and job creation could boost his votes.
A south Phoenix resident, Jason Harrington, said the area needs development like this theme park to support the people who have moved there over the years.
“I want to not only go to the trails, but I also want to go have a beer at the brewery, or go somewhere out on a date,” he said.