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$200 Million Water Park at the Gardens?

Gilroy Dispatch

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June 23, 2007

Gilroy - A group of real estate investors hope to convert Gilroy Gardens, a family theme park nestled along the foothills of Hecker Pass, into a $200 million water park and high-end resort that could attract visitors from across the globe.

The proposal, delivered Friday morning to city and park officials by a pair of real estate consultants and investors with Alliant Real Estate and Financial Services in Campbell, comes as Gilroy City Council mulls a $12.4 million purchase of the 536-acre site.

"We're not going to turn that resort into a Six Flags or Great America," said Robert McDuff Sr., an investor and consultant with Alliant. "We don't want it to become something where we have people come to the city of Gilroy for just one day, but for a few days. It will be a regional resort and a worldwide attraction. We already get people from Japan and Europe for the Garlic Festival. Why not enhance that and do it nine months of the year?"

The investors want to bring two large roller coasters and a "mega water ride" to the park by June 2008, followed by the opening of an indoor-outdoor water park and a six-story hotel by the summer of 2009, according to a written proposal given by Alliant. Stores and restaurants would be located along a miniature downtown in the mold of Disneyland or other large theme parks.

The proposal would also include four music theaters devoted to classic rock, country music, gospel music, and plays and other performances. Plans call for three music shows a day, six days a week during a proposed operating season stretching from February through December, McDuff said.

Part of the hotel would be built underground and the new attractions would be configured to reduce their visibility along the tree-lined corridor, he added.

McDuff said the park would retain its family theme and educational bent, as originally envisioned by founder Michael Bonfante. The former grocery store magnate whose family started Nob Hill sits on the park's board of directors, but declined to comment on the proposal.

"These are not the first people to ring our doorbell," said Bob Kraemer, president of the nonprofit park's board of directors. Kraemer and Assistant City Administrator Anna Jatczak met Friday morning with McDuff and Sam Roham, who have created investment company Destiny Capital Solutions, in Nevada, to back the deal.

"We have agreed to listen to them, but they've been told it's a matter of acquiring information," Kraemer said. "It's not something we're going to spend a lot of time on because our focus is to continue to support the city as they grapple with the project. When that process is over, if it's appropriate, we'll look at (McDuff and Roham's proposal)."

Park officials asked the city in March to consider buying Gilroy Gardens' land and facilities for the cost of the park's $12.4 million debt. Council members have touted the purchase as a "steal" that would save the park from large-scale development, though some residents have criticized the proposal as a distraction from other budget priorities.

To sweeten their proposal, McDuff said his investors are willing to give the city 5 percent of the park's future profits and an unspecified amount of money for the proposed $10 million downtown arts center, a project with no immediate plans for construction that officials say will cost $5 million more than originally budgeted.

Councilman Dion Bracco said the city should shelve the arts center project to finance the Gilroy Gardens purchase, which he has called a chance for the city to acquire its own Golden Gate Park. He dismissed McDuff and Roham's proposal.

"I don't put any stock in their claims that they want to invest at all," Bracco said. "When they hear the deal the city's going to get on the park, of course they all want that deal. Anybody would want to buy the park for $12 million, but that deal's only for the city."

It remains unclear if the park could sell the land to anyone other than the city. Under the terms of a development deal approved by council four years ago, Gilroy Gardens agreed to establish a nonprofit board of directors and name the city as the ultimate beneficiary of the park. Under the terms of the deal, if the park declared bankruptcy and sold its land, the city would receive all proceeds after creditors were paid off, according to Kraemer.

"As a (nonprofit), it raises so many questions that I don't want to spend the dollars to explore the legalities," he said. "It's not something we're looking at today. They have lawyers. They can spend the money if they want to explore that."

McDuff said he plans to seek the opinion of the park's entire board of directors.

If the park's board of directors agrees to the sale, there is little the city could do to block the development without risking a lawsuit. More than 160 acres of the park's land is now zoned as highway commercial, a designation that allows such uses, according to City Planning Manager Bill Faus. City officials have previously dismissed the idea of rezoning the park land for fear of inviting lawsuits from bondholders, whose investments are backed by the land and its development potential.

Faus said the water resort would require a conditional use permit that would allow shops or restaurants that sell souvenirs and merchandise related to the park theme. The permit would not allow a GAP, Starbucks, or any other business typically found in a downtown or outlet mall.

The Bay Area currently has about half a dozen water parks, including Raging Waters in San Jose and Waterworld in Concord.

The Gilroy park would be modeled on Branson Landing, a 1.5-mile lakeside project in Missouri that includes a downtown retail sector, a Hilton hotel, music theaters and a variety of other attractions.

McDuff, who said he helped put together financing for the $380 million Branson Landing, said he has lined up a number of national companies interested in the Gilroy proposal, including Parc Management LLC, a management company that paid $312 million this year to purchase seven Six Flags theme parks.

American Capital Holdings, a Michigan investment company, has committed to help finance the Gilroy park, according to a letter from the company to the city. The letter states the resort could bring in $25 million in gross revenues annually. The park has brought in a little more than $1 million in revenues since 2005.

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