A Wet Future for Gilroy?

Great Wolf

It was the subject of closed-session chatter this week by the Gilroy City Council and of private meetings before that, so the idea of bringing a world-class water park resort and conference center to town is alive and well.

And while traffic and other concerns have been raised since the notion was first reported in August, it so far has not become a contentious issue in the mayoral race.

Neither Mayor Perry Woodward nor challenger Councilman Roland Velasco oppose the idea.

Both say they want it studied more, to ensure Gilroy’s interests come first, and that citizens’ voices are heard as preliminary discussions move forward with Great Wolf Resorts.

The Madison, Wisconsin-based firm is billed as owning the largest chain of indoor water parks in the world. It recently opened one in Garden Grove, California.

“I am cautiously optimistic Great Wolf Lodge will be a benefit to the city,” Velasco said Tuesday.

“Everything I hear is positive,” Woodward said. “It could be a very nice, complementary use of 30 acres of public land that right now is being grossly underutilized.”

Woodward was referring to vacant, mostly weed-choked land and empty, unkempt buildings unseen by visitors on the east side of Gilroy Gardens Family Park, the city-owned botanical theme park on Hecker Pass Highway.

That’s where Great Wolf has suggested it might want to build an indoor water park, a 500- to 600-room hotel and a conference and banquet center.

Nothing was reported out of Monday’s closed-door city council session where the topic was on the agenda, which means no action was taken on the matter.

But city staffers from the planning department and one or more elected officials have met at least five times with company representatives, including the firm’s San Francisco-based attorney, according to Woodward, who has attended meetings.

He and his family stayed at the Garden Grove location and had a great time, according to the mayor.

“There is still a lot of fact-finding to be done, we are talking in very broad terms how this might work,” Woodward said of the meetings to date.

Both he and Velasco said the proposal could be a real win-win if it makes good business sense for Great Wolf, is beneficial to the city and residents’ concerns can be addressed satisfactorily.

“I know the Gilroy Gardens board of directors feels like this could potentially be a compatible use for that land, but again, they have to make sure whatever we put there isn’t going to impact their finances negatively,” the mayor said.

Woodward also is aware of the sensitivities surrounding the theme park’s finances and suggested Great Wolf could play a sort of rescue role for Gilroy Gardens, which is faced with increased operating costs.

The city still is paying off the price of buying the park from its former owners for $12 million, he said. When bonds used to fund the park’s construction were not repaid on time, Woodward said it sort of “forced” a change of ownership.

“Gilroy Gardens will need 30 percent more attendance to stay afloat because of increased costs largely associated with the increase in minimum wage,” he said. “This [Great Wolf idea] is in some ways a wonderful opportunity if we can do this in a way that is complementary and drives more visits to Gilroy Gardens.”

Great Wolf, he added, markets to people who live within a six-hour drive of their resorts, which could open the door to “an untapped pool of people who could be using Gilroy Gardens.”

So far there has been at least one area in which the city’s and Great Wolf’s intentions differ, according to Woodward.

“They are interested in a land purchase, I am far more interested in some type of long-term lease where the city keeps ownership and control of that area,” he said.

On this point the mayoral candidates appear to be on the same page. Velasco said, “I don’t think there’s any intention on the city’s part to sell the land.”

Gilroy City Administrator Gabe Gonzalez has also been involved in all talks to date with Great Wolf’s representatives. Gilroy’s not interested in selling land at its theme park, he said.

“We consider Gilroy Gardens an asset of the city, and for us, in order to maintain land use control, we would be more willing to do a long term lease than selling,” he said.

Nor is anything likely to happen quickly, he suggested.

“If you look at the type of project and what is proposed, it does not happen overnight, there’s a lot of lengthy discussion to come,” he said.

Woodward expects discussions to continue and said that if all goes well they will result in a written agreement on what needs to happen for detailed planning to begin.

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