|Niagara Falls and the folks at Oz Central, who are thinking about putting a theme park downtown in the Cataract City, have something in common.
The people who used to own the rights to the Oz theme faced opposition from residents when they tried to put a park in Kansas.
Meanwhile, in Niagara Falls, promises have been made to residents by developers that have never come to fruition.
For those reasons, Oz Central's current principals, who own the rights to the family trust of L. Frank Baum, author of the "Wonderful Wizard of Oz," and more than 30 other books, are making sure that whichever site is chosen for their $500-million theme park has residents willing to welcome them.
Niagara Falls, Houston and Atlanta are the three cities on Oz Central's short list.
In Niagara Falls, there is cautious optimism that the project will take shape, but it's hard to ignore the many promised developments. AquaFalls is just one example.
Mayor Irene Elia supports the project, and said Niagara Falls as a tourist destination has the capability to draw crowds for the theme park.
When Richard Burch, president of Oz Central, talks about the $500 million planned theme park, it's hard not to be skeptical.
Financing for the project will come from several sources, both public and private. Burch said New York state has some attractive development programs lacking in the other locations under consideration, which could be the tipping point in the final selection.
Another group that formerly was the official licenser of the L. Frank Baum Family Trust ran into resident opposition six years ago when they sought to build a theme park on 9,000 acres that needed to be cleaned up in Kansas. Residents thought the land wasn't able to be cleaned thoroughly enough to allow their children to play on it, the plan was denied zoning and the project never got off the ground.
Burch said his group had nothing to do with the Kansas group, and Oz Central wanted to make sure they learned from their predecessor's group and started fresh.
To that end, about 18 months ago, the new Oz Central was formed and a list of 15 potential sites was compiled, with some international cities. Burch said destinations outside the United States were eliminated, because the group's principals thought that the "Wizard of Oz" was a wholly American entity.
Since Burch's predecessors had such a problem with the residents in Kansas, securing public support in whichever site they choose is crucial, Burch said.
Political support also is important.
Burch said he has met with a Western New York representative of Sen. Hillary Clinton, and is planning to meet with other elected officials.
When he visited, he liked Niagara Falls' Midwestern feel, and called his reception here "very comfortable."
"We're Midwesterners," he said. "We have a high degree of integrity. The attitudes and the openness is very Midwest-like."
The group is proposing a high-tech, indoor/outdoor theme park with an emphasis on indoor attractions, with rides and immersion technology.
"Our approach will be really high-tech, state of the art technology," Burch said. "This is not just an amusement park. This is a world-class destination theme park"
There is a plan for a roller-coaster featuring flying monkeys as the cars — riders would hang from them. Burch said one company already is under license to build the coaster.
Burch said the entire team has been identified, except the developer and the contractor, which will be recruited locally after the site is finalized.
Brian Piper, a Lewiston man with International Business Development Associates, was instrumental in bringing Burch and his partners to the Falls.
Niagara Falls Redevelopment, which owns the old Nabisco plant, has met with Burch and his partners to discuss the possibility of putting the park there, though Burch said he and his partners have their sights on other locations in the Falls as well.
The Nabisco plant is appealing, Burch said, because the land is not raw, like other sites under consideration, which would lower upfront costs.
"As stated before, the concept and the brand name of the Wizard Oz is one that has stood the test of time, and we look forward to working with this group, or any economically viable group, for reviving the down-town area," said NFR Executive Vice President Roger Trevino.
A final decision on which site will be chosen will be made in 90 days, Burch said.