It’s a little hard to picture, just looking at the barren patch of land that’s been sitting here seemingly forever. Then again, most projects of this size and scope are.
Here’s the plan, anyway: A 126-acre theme park located just off Interstate 5 in Sutherlin that will draw throngs of visitors and bedazzle them with all things Oregon. It’s intended to be a sort of one-stop-shop featuring a hotel, convention center, museum, RV park, water park, fishing, boating and an outlet mall.
It may sound like a stretch, especially for an area known more for its hilly, winding section of interstate than its tourism attractions. But Sutherlin is depressed economically and starving for development, and there is just enough meat on the bone in the proposal to get local and Douglas County officials excited.
That excitement ratcheted up a notch this week when the developer, Oregon Only Development CEO Bruce Brunette, exercised the right to purchase the property from the county for $1.2 million dollars. That means that as long as Brunette meets the terms of the purchase agreement — namely within 60 days pony up $500,000 at closing and pay the balance over the next 18 months at 6% interest — the land is his to build the park.
“What we’re trying to do is create a new concept to drive tourism and to drive industry and jobs in a rural community,” Brunette said. “We’re making a big investment in the community down there.”
Brunette said there is a general excitement about the park, and not just from area officials. He said more than 60 businesses have expressed an interest in the mall, including several large “anchor” stores. Likewise, more than a dozen groups said they would use the convention center and five national hotel chains have expressed an interest in the park, he said.
Plans call for the park, located along the east side of Interstate 5 between the two Sutherlin exits and Highway 99, to be built-in phases, Brunette said. That means its economic impact will continue to grow over the years.
And that potential significant and long-term economic boost, especially at a site that has been vacant and off the tax rolls for decades, has local officials excited. They point to the estimated 150 temporary jobs the project will provide to build the park and another 150 permanent jobs it will take to run it.
There is also a “trickle-down” economic benefit, they say, both in the public sector — trash pickup, law enforcement, fire department personnel and the like — and private businesses like restaurants, gas stations and more.
Sutherlin Mayor Todd McKnight: “It would be a huge shot in the arm for the economy, not only for Sutherlin but for Douglas County. It would just be phenomenal.”
Sutherlin City Manager Jerry Gillham: “We’re excited about it. It’s a transformational project for the whole community and would stimulate economic growth on all levels…This is going to be a catalyst for all of Douglas County.”
Douglas County Commissioner Chris Boice: “It means a whole bunch of good things for the county, including jobs and other fringe benefits.”
Such enthusiasm is typical, said Dennis Speigel, an international theme park consultant who is considered an expert in the field.
“All of the local government officials will no doubt get behind it. It’s kind of like when the medicine wagon rolls into town,” said Spiegel, whose 50 years’ experience has earned him the nickname Mr. Theme Park.
Yet he cautioned against anyone getting too excited too soon. Yes, theme parks provide an economic boost to the area, he said, but they are also difficult to get off the ground, namely because of the cost.
“Today it’s very expensive to build a theme park, it’s a very expensive game to get into and sit at the table,” Speigel said. “For a true theme park with rides and attractions, you’re looking at $250 million to $300 million.”
Speigel also said that it’s critical to have a population base that will support the park. Just because an attraction is located in a high-traffic area — Brunette points to studies showing that more than 40,000 cars pass by the site each day — doesn’t guarantee its success, Speigel said.
“You could get 100,000 cars driving by a day but the question is will they stop,” he said, adding that the majority of visitors will likely be repeat customers who live within 100 miles of the park.
For his part, Brunette acknowledges there is much heavy lifting to do before his vision becomes a reality. Perhaps the biggest hurdle will be the myriad state agencies — he reels off a half-dozen of them, including Department of Environmental Quality, Department of Transportation, Corps of Engineers and Department of State Lands — that have to sign off on the project.
But Brunette stresses that he is not new to the game and has a record of success. He said his company has built or been involved with dozens of parks and projects, including the Dallas Aquatic Center in Oregon, and in Washington Wild Waves in Federal Way, The Ritzville Aquatic Center in Adams County and the Propsta Aquatic Center and the Jim Parsley Community Center for the city of Vancouver.
Brunette insists he has done his homework for the Sutherlin project and his plans are viable.
“This is not a half-baked idea,” Brunette said. “This has been completely thought through and analyzed. We brought some very good people to the table to help develop this.”
He plans to build the project in phases. First comes the RV park, which will house the workers needed to build the rest of the park, Brunette said. If all goes as planned construction could begin in about year and the park will open in 2021, he said.
“SutherIin is a depressed timber community and this will create a new revenue source and new job creation for the area,” Brunette said. “It’s going to create a tourism industry in Sutherlin that doesn’t exist.”