Eloy theme park plan clouded by failure of S. Carolina attraction - East Valley Tribune: East Valley Local News

Eloy theme park plan clouded by failure of S. Carolina attraction

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Posted: Friday, December 26, 2008 5:01 pm | Updated: 8:36 pm, Fri Oct 7, 2011.

In November 2007, in the basement of an office building behind the state Capitol, a team of lobbyists and public relations advisers unveiled a scale model of Arizona's next big idea: a rock 'n' roll theme park.

Bill to help fund Eloy theme park passes

With just a little help from lawmakers - tax authority over a parcel of land in Eloy and access to low-interest government bonds - the project had the potential to diversify the state's economy and provide thousands of new jobs, its creators said.

By June, legislators and the governor had bought in. But almost without notice, there was something happening on the other side of the country that portended problems for the $800 million idea.

A park nearly identical to Eloy's proposed Decades park was opening in Myrtle Beach, S.C. Called Hard Rock Park, the East Coast version looked pretty much the same as what was proposed for Eloy - except the Hard Rock Park actually had more going for it.

It was located in a well-established tourist destination and benefited from a recognizable name (part of an agreement with Hard Rock Cafe).

But that park, often used by the Arizona theme-park folks as an example of why the idea would work well here, was troubled before opening day.

Strapped for cash, developers delayed the opening and turned to junk bonds to bring in revenue. With little money left, the management didn't do much advertising. As the economy soured and gasoline prices rose, ticket sales dropped week-to-week.

By September, Hard Rock Park had filed for bankruptcy and closed its doors. That park's failure is now raising questions about the practically of the Arizona version.

If a park in a tourist hot spot can't make it, how would a similar concept get off the drawing board in sparsely populated and somewhat remote Eloy?

One of the leaders behind Decades, real estate developer Greg Sherman, did not return calls and e-mails requesting an interview. And the initiators are no longer consulting with Jason Rose, a Phoenix public-relations expert who pitched the idea last year. Rose directed questions to Sherman.

Marty West, the creator of the park, did not return a phone message, either.

"Ultimately it's never going to be built," said state Sen. Ken Cheuvront, a Phoenix Democrat who was one of the most outspoken voices against the theme-park legislation. "In this economy, the financing is impossible for a theme park out in the middle of nowhere. It's crazy to begin with."

Those who supported the theme-park bill remain hopeful that something will develop once the economy turns around, but the optimism is muted.

The project depends on raising $100 million in seed money to get access to the government-issued bonds needed to break ground. And raising that money, supporters in Eloy acknowledge, is challenging in the national economy.

But if there's any lesson from Hard Rock Park, it's that if you build it, they won't necessarily come - not unless they know about it, that is.

Marion Edmonds, spokesman for South Carolina's Department of Parks, Recreation and Tourism, said developers of Hard Rock Park relied on "earned media" - generating publicity for the park through news stories - rather than through paid advertisements.

And while there was some buzz surrounding the opening, it wasn't enough to draw the 30,000 visitors a day the park needed, Edmonds said.

"They simply did not go in with the deep pockets to do the advertising and marketing that they needed," he said. Add the plummeting economy and $4-a-gallon gas prices, and Hard Rock Park found itself struggling to survive, even in the tourist mecca of Myrtle Beach.

The upside for officials there is that Myrtle Beach is the tourist center of South Carolina. Eloy - population 10,000 - would find its economy virtually dependent on a theme park such as Decades, which was supposed to be bigger than Disneyland and open by 2012.

"We have a lot of other attractions here and other reasons why people come here," said Kimberly Miles of the Myrtle Beach Chamber of Commerce.

Hard Rock Park may reopen. It was sold at an auction early this month. But the most generous estimates put that reopening date at 2010.

Still, Eloy's mayor, Byron Jackson, says he hopes Decades comes to fruition. It just might take - well, a decade.

"There's just so much involved," said Jackson, who predicts it might take seven to 10 years for the project to be realized.

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