In the first venture of its kind in the nation, the Viejas band of Mission Indians has approved the development of a $250-million amusement and water park on its East San Diego County reservation.
The Indians hope the 120-acre project will piggyback on San Diego County's tourism industry and their own gambling casino and create 2,400 jobs during peak summers after its completion in 1996.
The project was approved by 58% of tribal members in a vote taken Wednesday, said Anthony R. Pico, chairman of the band. A similar proposal was narrowly defeated two months ago, but the project was pared down by a third from 180 acres and the length of the lease shortened from 99 years to 50 years, Pico said.
"This will enable the tribe to participate in meaningful employment and with training programs for those who want to go into management," Pico said. The contract guarantees preference in hiring tribal members, Pico said, and will include training for those who want to work at the park but lack the necessary skills.
The developer of the parks, Gold Springs Enterprises of Rancho Bernardo, said it hopes to draw more than 2.5 million visitors to the site, half an hour east of San Diego, during the first year of operation.
"San Diego County is literally one of the last major markets in the United States that does not have a family-oriented theme park," said Skip Palmer, chairman of the company that will develop Gold Springs Country. "Sea World and the San Diego Zoo are both magnificent attractions, but they are a distinct product."
Palmer said he has worked on other amusement park projects, including one under way in Portugal, and that Gold Springs was formed a year ago expressly to pursue the Viejas park.
The park's theme will be "The Spirit of America" and focus on the country's great writers, inventors and the story of Native Americans, Palmer said.
"It's done in a fun and entertaining way," Palmer said. "We will certainly educate, but we are in the entertainment business."
Industry analysts agreed that the San Diego area, with its year-round good weather and expanding population, is ripe for a theme park, even during a recession when attendance at amusement parks across the country has slipped.
"During tough times, theme parks dip, but not in the same way other industries do," said Dave Lyon of The Lyon Group in Los Angeles. "San Diego County is probably a fine spot. It has demonstrated that it is a terrific tourist mecca, and it's an ideal place to vacation without some of the problems that, for example, Los Angeles County has."
Lyon said the key would be for the new park to distinguish itself from others in the area, much as Disneyland, Universal Studios, Six Flags Magic Mountain and Knott's Berry Farm in the Los Angeles-Orange County area.
Virgil Townsend of the Bureau of Indian Affairs said the theme park is a break from industries that Native Americans have courted in the last 10 years, such as gambling and landfills. Although other communities shun such projects, Native Americans have taken them on in hopes of boosting their sagging economies.
The proposed water and theme park for the Viejas Reservation will take up 7% of the reservation's 1,700 acres. Casting ballots in Wednesday's vote were 106 tribal members, Pico said.
Water for the proposed 20-acre water park will come from the reservation's natural aquifers, Palmer said, a source that studies show will "provide more water than we could ever use."
Another 45-acre water park proposed for the Santee Lakes Recreation Park was scheduled to open in 1994 but stalled over the availability of water. A 16-acre water park that developers had hoped to build just north of Escondido also has been bogged down by difficulties in finding water.
A water park in Julian, also on an Indian reservation, has been in operation for four years.
Because designs for the proposed theme park in Alpine are not yet final, Palmer said, investors for the $250-million project have not yet been sought.
"A year from now, we will have completed all of our studies and research and gotten all of our approvals," Palmer said. "Only then can we step forward and say our project is ready to be financed."
The approval of the Viejas band of Mission Indians has been the largest hurdle so far, Pico said, and, when the contract is final, it will need to be approved by the Bureau of Indian Affairs.
Because the lease for the site has the potential for lasting more than 50 years, Pico said, the contract will probably also require approval of Congress.
The contract also will include a line of credit for the tribe to purchase 120 acres next to the reservation near the freeway exit leading up to the proposed theme and water park, Pico said. Gold Springs Enterprises owns an option on the land near the Willows Road exit.
Both parties declined to disclose the annual amount of money to be paid to the tribe for use of the land, saying only that it includes a base amount plus a percentage of gross receipts. The tribe will be receiving $1.5 million up front when the project is funded, Pico said.
The park will include some type of cinema, motion simulators, dark rides, live entertainment and stage performances, Palmer said.
Viejas Reservation Amusement Park A 120-acre parcel of the reservation will be developed into an amusement park called Gold Springs Country.