|By Ellena F. Morrison, Fort Worth Star-Telegram, Texas
Knight Ridder/Tribune Business News
Oct. 9, 2005 - GRAPEVINE -- City officials view their recently signed deal with the Great Wolf Lodge as a wise investment that will draw more money-spending tourists to their city.
But some residents complain that city officials are approving commercial development too quickly and taking little care to preserve the community's natural elements.
Great Wolf signals the Grapevine City Council's "relentless pursuit of commercial development, especially aimed at tourism, and its unwritten policy of secrecy that deprives residents from knowing where we are headed," said Buck Buchanan, the president of a local watchdog group, Grapevine Citizens' Watch.
The council, he said, considered the Great Wolf project for 18 months without informing citizens, and it is another project that takes away from the natural beauty of the area.
"We have been lulled into inaction by how easy a place Grapevine is to live in," he said. "Someday, maybe not too far into the future, the Grapevine goose will stop laying golden eggs, and we will face even tougher economic times."
City officials, however, say there's plenty of time left for public input and that Great Wolf, coupled with the Gaylord Texan Resort & Convention Center on Lake Grapevine, will make Grapevine a tourist destination. Grapevine Mills and Bass Pro Shops Outdoor World are also part of the draw.
"Gaylord elevated Grapevine to a first-choice option in terms of convention meetings," said P.W. McCallum, Grapevine Convention & Visitors Bureau executive director. "Great Wolf now elevates Grapevine to a first-choice option for the leisure market.
"The critical mass is beginning to really come together."
Residents may still offer input, Councilwoman Darlene Freed said. Building permits, zoning changes and other red-tape matters will require public hearings.
"There are many things to do before Great Wolf is a reality," she said.
The proposed six-story resort at Texas 26 and Business 114 will be the first Great Wolf Lodge in the Southwest and is set to break ground in the spring and open in 2007.
It will feature an entertainment area of 80,000 square feet, or almost 1 1/2 football fields. The indoor water park will feature a wave pool, an activity pool for water sports such as basketball or polo, and a pool with giant slides.
"Communities tend to seek us out. The economics to a location are pretty clear," said John Emery, Great Wolf Resorts chief executive officer, who estimates the Grapevine property could bring up to 400,000 visitors annually.
Grapevine lured Great Wolf with an offer of $5.3 million in incentives, mostly through waiving building and permit fees and rebating hotel/motel taxes. The rebates are for 10 years.
The lodge will also include several restaurants, an arcade, a gift shop and Aveda spa, a fitness center and an outdoor recreation area, Great Wolf officials said. The resort could employ up to 400 people. Local vendors are often used, Emery said.
"We are not looking to change the image of Grapevine, because we love it," Emery said. "We do hope to make it known as a convenient tourist destination."
According to a city study, the resort could generate up to $26.3 million in city tax revenues by 2017.
Great Wolf opened a 300-room hotel with an indoor water park in Williamsburg, Va., eight months ago. Residents initially expressed some concerns about the plans, such as how much water the property would use and its location next to an interstate highway.
"Those issues haven't been a problem," said Robert Hershberger, Williamsburg Area Chamber of Commerce executive vice president.
Early countywide economic impact estimates by Great Wolf officials appear to be a little off, said Jim Noel, York County economic director. The county initially predicted tax revenues of about $1.8 million for the first year, while Great Wolf officials expected closer to $2.6 million. It appears revenues will fall somewhere in the middle, Noel said.
"They were perhaps a little optimistic," he said. "They were predicting some pretty stellar occupancy rates, but they have done well, very well."
Great Wolf also has a 271-room lodge in Kansas City, Kan. Some of the rooms include children's playhouses. Others have beds elevated by lofts. Still others resemble traditional hotel rooms but with a Northwest outdoor log-cabin theme, county officials said.
The Grapevine location will likely have similar rooms.
"They are really designed for you to go with your family and extended family," said Doug Bach, Unified Government of Wyandotte County deputy county administrator. "It's a really fun place."
Kansas City officials' goal to make their area a tourist destination parallels that of Grapevine. To that end, county officials opened the Village West entertainment district in 2001. Great Wolf followed a year later. The entertainment district also includes the Kansas Speedway, Nebraska Furniture and a Cabela's store. The district now sees 10 million visitors annually, Bach said.
"They set a tone for us to say we can really do some of this destination entertainment here," Bach said.
Bach estimates people come from 100 to 200 miles away to skid down water slides and eat at the lodge's restaurants.
"I wouldn't be surprised if we have people coming up from Texas," he said.
Exact financial numbers were not available for the Kansas property because the entertainment district is not broken down by attraction. But Bach said that while occupancy rates have lagged slightly, the nightly rate per person is higher than expected.
The indoor water park has become such a hot draw, county officials are looking to add an outdoor water park in the near future.
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