The Politics of a Waterpark for the Northeast

waterpark-orrOn July 1, 2014, the City of El Paso issued a “Request for Proposals” (2014-475R) requesting proposals for a “Northeast Water/Aquatic Adventure Park” at Cohen Stadium. Although this was the first time a proposal for a water park development was widely disseminated to the community by the city, the discussion and lobbying had been going on privately for many years. Through open records and research, I’m going to dissect for you how the city has come to this point in order to give you an opportunity to understand how your tax monies are spent by the political elite.

As with almost every public policy item, whispers about a possible waterpark started to leak out through political circles before the news media reported on it or the city officially acknowledged it. Many of the political backscatter centered on the notion that the city was about to embark on a public/private partnership without the due diligence owed to the taxpayers of the community.

Whispers of backdoor deals was the tone of the dialog.

In early November 2012, KVIA’s Maria Garcia reported that Joyce Wilson had stated “a private company had approached the city with a proposal” to build a water park at Cohen. The HOT taxes had just been approved by the voters to fund the stadium. Garcia reported that the company did not want to be named. Their proposal included the requirement that the city have a “significant financial stake” in the proposed water park. Although not publicly identified in the news media, through open records requests I have identified the company as Hawaiian Falls Waterpark.

Hawaiian Falls

According to an email dated July 17, 2012, I received from my open records request; Greg Yost had called the city manager the previous week asking if the city would be interested in “locating a water park in the community”. Yost was proposing a public-private partnership for the waterpark to the city. According to the 28-page company brochure provided to the city, Yost is the company’s Vice President of Acquisition and Development. The series of email exchanges in 2012 between the city and Hawaiian Falls shows that the city provided the company with demographics for the city and Ft. Bliss and proposed the Cohen site as a possible location for a waterpark.

The company made an official presentation to the city manager’s office in late October 2012. In the presentation Harvest Family Entertainment, the parent company for Hawaiian Falls, proposed building a full-featured water park with adjacent outdoor rope courses and other attractions. As a matter of fact, their presentation closely mirrors what the city is requesting in the recently issued RFP.

In their presentation, the company argues that a public/private partnership is a quality of life issue, a “pay back to City versus Annual Operating loses” and that it brings “private money investment” into the community. It adds that the public/private partnership gives the city an operator with “skin in the game” and is a “stimulator of other business activity to the community”.

Hawaiian Falls proposed in 2012 to build an adventure and waterpark project for the city. The company was asking that the city taxpayers spend $11 million while the company contributed $2 million towards the parks. The company wanted an initial 40-year lease with two 5-year extension options. Hawaiian Falls was proposing that the land the park would sit on would be rent free for the first three years and that an annual rent fee of 5% of the parks’ gross revenues be paid to the city after the first three years. Any ongoing upgrades to the parks would be paid 20% by Hawaiian Falls and 80% by the taxpayers of the community. Additionally, the company wanted to be the developer and operator of the park with its investment capped at the $2 million while the city would pay the rest. Hawaiian Falls would be responsible for all of the operating expenses such as wages and utilities in operating the park.

Potential Funding

The political whispers identified the source of the proposed funding to be from the Quality of Life Bonds. In fact, an October 1, 2012 email from the city confirmed, “there is significant allocation” from the “parks projects” to possibly fund a potential joint venture. This was an apparent reference to the upcoming Quality of Life bonds the city was proposing. In an email dated November 9, 2012 from Greg Yost to Leila Melendez, he congratulates the city for “passing the $470M parks & entertainment bond” adding “Wow!” Yost asks Melendez what she needed to continue the discussion.

On February 19, 2013, city employees of the Economic Development Department travelled to Dallas to make a site visit to one of Hawaiian Falls’ parks. On November 19, 2012, Joyce Wilson had passed the discussion about the waterpark over to the Economic Development Department. By March of that year, the city seemed to have lost interest in the project while Hawaiian Falls was attempting to push forward the project by suggesting finalizing a contract because they had a “goal of opening in the spring of 2014”.

Wet ‘n’ Wild

At about the same time Conan Edwards, the marketing director for Wet ‘n’ Wild, submitted an open records request for information about the waterpark project. Edwards seems to have been looking for information about a company submitting a proposal to build a water park for the city. An email dated January 11, 2013 from Joyce Wilson to Leila Melendez confirms that an open records request had been submitted to city looking for information on Hawaiian Falls. In her response, Wilson writes that the city “should be able to withhold proprietary” information and that she wants “to play hardball” in order not to jeopardize the project. According to a press statement issued by Wet ‘n’ Wild on September 16, 2014, Wet ‘n’ Wild had submitted a “competing proposal that would have been much better economically for the City” sometime in 2013. Wet ‘n’ Wild officials write that the city inferred that a waterpark was “years off”. Because of that, they then proceeded to invest in expanding their existing park on January of this year only to be surprised to learn that the city issued an RFP six months later.

The City’s Official Request for Proposals

The city’s proposal was published on July 1 with a scheduled due date of September 2, 2014. In it, the city requests “qualified developers to design, construct, manage, and operate a water/aquatic adventure park…to be located adjacent to the current Cohen Baseball Stadium site”.

Basically, the city is looking for a company to lease the city-owned land adjacent to Cohen Stadium and build a year-round park to include a water park. The city wants the park company to share the park revenues with the city. However, the city is open to working out a public/private agreement with a potential developer.

On August 14, 2014, the city extended the due date for submitting proposals to September 9, 2014.

On August 28, 2014, the city issued an amendment answering various questions. The city clarified that “there will not be any seasonal or annual water restrictions” for the proposed park. Question number 31 asked if the city was going to “invest any money”. The city responded that the city “is willing to enter into discussion and negotiations for a potential incentive agreement to help offset financial deficits that might occur within the beginning years of operation”.

Question number 33 asked if “any consultants or advisors who have helped” with the “preliminary planning” of the proposed water park. The city responded that it did not receive any help by consultants or advisors.

Question number 35 specifically asked if the city was “entertaining a public/private partnership”. The response by the city was that it would entertain an incentive agreement to offset the investment to build the park.

The companies that attended the “Pre-Development Site Visit Meeting” included AG Group, Banes, Cobb Fandley Engineering, Hawaiian Falls, Parkhill, Smith & Cooper, PSI, Sunlight Enterprises and Wet ‘n’ Wild.

Wet ‘n’ Wild, through its press statement on August 16, stated that it would not be submitting a proposal for the city’s RFP.

The request for proposals was scheduled to close yesterday. It will be sometime before we know who actually submitted any proposals for the RFP. However, I believe that knowing the details about how this project has been developing will help us to better grasp the ramifications of any proposals that the city decides to engage in, in developing a waterpark in the near future.

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