Waterpark developers float idea in Cuero

June 4, 2011 at 1:04 a.m.

Businesspeople who tried unsuccessfully in 2009 to build a Victoria waterpark might take their idea to Cuero.

Developers say the decision to look elsewhere hinges on incentives, or a lack thereof. While Cuero appears open to subsidies, the Victoria City Council was hesitant.

This possible move comes as Victoria aims to position itself as a destination city - a place that attracts full-time university students, young adults and tourists with money to spend on the weekends.

Would the loss of a waterpark slow these efforts?

Homer Escalante and two business partners approached the Victoria City Council in late 2009 with a $6 million idea to build a waterpark.

The park was to be on 3.2 acres of private property adjacent to the Riverside Convention Center. Escalante owns the convention center and the surrounding 21 acres, which greet Riverside Park visitors at the Red River Street entrance.

The plan included a lazy river, two children's sections, four slides and a wave pool. Later, they planned to build a miniature golf course, go-karts and batting cage - year-round amenities.

Escalante asked the city for financial incentives, such as a tax abatement, cut of the sales tax or discounted water prices.

The city, though, wanted to view details that offered assurance it'd get bang for its buck.

Escalante estimates the park would create 50 jobs - about 15 permanent positions - and draw 1,500 to 2,000 people per day. He based ticket sales on the performance of a Sheridan park.

Talks stalled after only a few months, and Escalante walked away feeling discounted, he said.

"If there was any project on the table for Victoria to promote tourism and bring people to town, this would be it," Escalante, 41, said. "This would put people in hotels and increase sales tax in the city by leaps and bounds. The council and economic development corporation never actively pursued us."

Not all council members oppose subsidies for Escalante. Councilman Gabriel Soliz said the park would help to entrench Victoria as a regional hub. "We live in the devil's furnace," he said. "This place just screams for a waterpark."

Incentives for such projects, however, come with strings and stringent requirements. Only the manufacturing, industrial, distribution and research industries qualify for tax abatements - and even then a council must decide if the subsidy is worth it.

Such decisions usually hinge on the creation of good-paying primary jobs and substantial private investment. Caterpillar will receive abatements, but it will also create 500 jobs and invest more than $100 million to build a Victoria manufacturing plant.

Victoria Mayor Will Armstrong said he wishes Escalante the best and he hopes a Cuero waterpark is a great success.

"Philosophically, I'm just opposed to subsidizing something that does not produce a lot of primary jobs," he said.

Because Escalante did not submit an incentives proposal - including sales tax generation estimates and detailed construction costs - the city could not decide whether to help in other ways, City Attorney Thomas Gwosdz said.

Cities, after all, have other tools to help businesses - even though some say government should keep its nose out of the private sector. Municipalities can discount water and infrastructure costs, and even refund sales tax payments.

Armstrong noted the city cannot provide subsidies to all business ideas because many fail. In Caterpillar's case, the company has a proven track record and the ability to support hundreds of primary wages, which will trickle throughout the city's economy.

In Cuero, leaders seem significantly more open to Escalante's idea. In fact, they courted the developers.

"We didn't offer any hard incentives, just a lot of generalities," Randall Malik, director of the Cuero Development Corporation, said. "This project could bring a lot of people to town. Up to this point, no formal incentives have been discussed by city council."

Cuero buzzes with growth potential, thanks to the Eagle Ford shale and construction of a manufacturing plant. A waterpark could be the icing on the cake.

Escalante said that while he prefers to build the park in Victoria, it appears Cuero is its likely home.

"You can tell Cuero aggressively want us," he said. "We still haven't made a decision, but we're looking over the incentives package and determining if it's viable."

The developers plan to decide about the waterpark's location in coming weeks, and they remain open to Victoria if the right deal is offered, Escalante said. He hopes to open the park by next summer.

Escalante is not the only businessman, however, who thinks Victoria could support such a park. Houston's Phillip McAliley, who managed the Victoria development of the strip center that houses Buffalo Wild Wings, has an option on 65 acres off Loop 463.

"Right now, I'm trying to get with various people who own and operate waterparks," McAliley said last week. "I can tell you a lot of people have their eyes on Victoria."



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