Company ready to buy land for theme park

A $165 million theme park proposal that’s been years in the making for northern Michigan is just steps away from acquiring a tract of state land along I-75 near Grayling for development.

Rochester-based Main Street America Inc. will request some zoning changes before the Grayling Township Planning Commission on July 31 for an 1,800-acre plot of state-owned land to become a theme park of the same name.

Once that hurdle is cleared, the company would need only a second appraisal on the land itself before it can arrange a purchase with the Michigan Department of Natural Resources.

In all, the company hopes to acquire nearly three square miles when counting some 300-plus additional acres of private land adjoining the state property, said Patrick Crosson, Main Street America president and theme park project manager. The company is talking with those private landowners. Just one of the owners has a house or cabin in the area.

“It (the private property) is mostly land people have bought as places to go hunt Up North. Nobody lives on it,” Crosson said.

The park in current concept sketches and site plans would feature rollercoasters, multiplayer video games, an extreme sports exhibit, a working farm, a children’s play area, resort hotel, toboggan ride, train station and eco-friendly features in what Crosson calls a theme park and family entertainment venue.

“One reason we chose the Grayling area is it’s sort of the point where you’re officially “Up North.’ When you travel to the resort communities and northern destinations, you’re now away from the cities and development,” Crosson said.

The completed facility won’t reach the size and scope of parks like Cedar Point, but rides will be open year-round unlike the popular Ohio destination.

Developers also hope to run the park entirely on alternative-energy sources like wind power by its second or third year of operation, said Crosson and Grayling Township Supervisor Terry Wright.

Financial partners in the project, along with Crosson and Daniel Cobb of Rochester-based advertising firm Daniel Brian & Associates, will include Jack Rouse & Associates of Cincinnati, Rock and Waterscape International Inc. of Irvine, Calif. and Sinacola Development Inc., a property of Texas-based developer David Sinacola.

“(The partners) realize what a value this could be for tourism in the state,” said Birmingham attorney Norman Yatooma, who represents Main Street America.

“These are all people, even the ones who aren’t based here, who have been extensively involved in Michigan in their businesses and in their hearts.”

Yatooma said some Main Street America partners have been doing research, scouting sites or seeking partners or backers for five years or more, though the project has lined up all its financial partners and a specific site for development only within the past two years or so.

Crosson said he plans to meet with the DNR later this month, and is still awaiting a second appraisal the state will obtain on its own land.

An appraisal obtained by the company valued the state land at $2,900 an acre or roughly $5.2 million, and Main Street America will have to purchase the land at whichever appraised value is higher, said David Freed, chief of the land and facilities division.

“The public would be invited to attend a hearing before the Natural Resources Commission if they want to comment,” Freed said. “But the decision (on the sale) will ultimately come from the (DNR) director.”

The commission will likely hold that hearing in September or October, he added. The developer has already fulfilled most other prerequisites to acquire the land, including a conceptual site plan review process Grayling Township completed and approved in late May.

Wright said the plan has met with relatively little dissent or opposition in the township. The township will also be involved as the park develops in phases, following the sale of the land.

“What they have from us now is conceptual approval for the site,” he said. “They will need to be back for technical approval when they plan to build specific structures like a hotel building, and we should have an engineer by then who can review the proposals for us.”

Wright also confirmed he was among several public officials who signed confidentiality agreements about the plan in early 2006 at Main Street America’s behest, when the company was still exploring the feasibility of acquiring the land. He added that he and the others were released from those agreements after the hearing process began.

“That’s just a standard procedure, while you as a company are doing your due diligence. You don’t want a competitor to get wind of what you’re doing when it’s still just an idea,” Crosson said.

“It was always understood that once there was a formal process going on before the township, where public hearings were involved, that confidentiality was over.”

Jack Rouse & Associates, based in Cincinnati, is an international designer and producer of museums, theme park exhibits and visitor attractions whose credits include the Arab American Museum in Dearborn and the “Journey to the Model T” exhibit at The Henry Ford.

Rock and Waterscape International Inc. in California has past credits as varied as miniature golf courses, water rides, park ride scenery and rock faces for climbing.

Sinacola has a number of subsidiary companies in Michigan and is primarily a land developer, though David Sinacola and most of the Sinacola family lives in Texas.

Crosson has a background heading a cold storage company that bought some properties in Detroit in the 1990s, and as vice president at Michigan National Bank before that — in addition to being a self-described rollercoaster and thrill-ride buff.

Cobb, listed as secretary of Main Street America, is also president and CEO of the Daniel Brian & Associates advertising and entertainment marketing firm, which shares Main Street America’s offices in Rochester. He was featured among Crain’s “40 under 40” in 2004 when his company was earning $7.5 million in revenue and produced a monthly television series/campaign that aired on WXYZ-Channel 7.

Businesses with agreements to work on the project include DeVere Construction Co. of Alpena, overseeing design and building on site; Ann Arbor-based Atwell-Hicks as land developing consultants; and Canton Township-based Mannik & Smith Group on off-site road traffic and other civil engineering work.

Brian Geer, senior vice president at Mannik & Smith, said the company has completed a traffic impact study along I-75 at the Four Mile Road exit in Grayling Township, and will also examine road network development in the coming months as building begins.

“There’s going to be a significant impact on traffic for the entire area, even the interstate and county roads,” he said.

Crosson said some 9.1 million vehicles pass by on I-75 each year, and the park could have as many as 1.8 million visitors its first year and 2.5 million or more in future years. He said the latest milestones have moved the company from the design phase to the building and development phase of its work, although the company anticipates a 30-month construction period before the park opens in June 2010.

The year-round operation will also be in a “Class A wind zone” to generate power by windmills and feature attractions for snowmobilers in the winter months — but Crosson said even in the subfreezing temperatures those rollercoasters are staying open.

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