|Will the yellow brick road lead to Niagara Falls?
It's less of a fairy tale and more a possibility as members of Oz Central LLC — namely "The Tinman" Richard A. Burch, "The Scarecrow" Tom Wahoski and a yet-to-be-dubbed character Albert J. Umbach Jr. — arrived Thursday, and not by tornado, to meet with developers and tourism officials about an Oz theme park in downtown Niagara Falls, possibly at the former Nabisco plant.
The group holds the licensing rights to the L. Frank Baum estate, author of the Wizard of Oz, one of 38 books he penned featuring more than 600 characters that include Dorothy, Toto, the Wicked Witch of the West, the Munchkins and, of course, the Wizard of Oz himself.
It turns out the Falls is one of five final locations the group is considering. The others are Atlanta, Houston, Scottsdale, and, of course, somewhere in Kansas.
The Falls, the group said, is on the short list, but they won't say exactly where.
The concept: Imagine walking from a parking lot into Kansas where visitors will be swept up by a tornado.
Once visitor's have weathered that storm, they'll be disoriented and find themselves in Munchkin Land, where they'll find the yellow brick road that leads to the Emerald City, a world complete with a castle, high-tech immersion rides, a wicked witch castle, flying monkeys, a myriad of gift shops, museums and more.
It'd be an indoor theme park so the blistering cold and snow wouldn't play a role in the park's success.
The project is projected to create 2,000 permanent jobs and 10,000 indirect jobs.
"We are interested in finding an existing destination feature," Burch said. "Obviously here, you have the falls. Also, the number of people (visiting here) is impressive. The general climate is impressive. There's a real need here while other locations we'd be part of the landscape."
Wahoski said the group would tap into what local officials are doing to keep visitors here longer. They'd also be interested in drawing guests from Toronto.
It's sure to be a hit, considering there are 5 to 7 billion Oz fans across the country. There's interest from many foreign countries as well. Recently, officials from Barcelona, Spain, has contacted the group to get permission to republish the Wizard of Oz.
"We're on a fact-finding mission," said Burch. "We're encouraged by the people we've talked to. We are looking for partners to do this.
The group also recognizes they need to win over a likely apprehensive public. Promised development after development, Falls residents aren't likely to welcome this concept with open arms.
Chandel Holloway has lived in the Falls all her life and used to go to the Niagara Splash before it closed.
"I don't know how long it would last," Holloway said. "If it would last it would be good. Hopefully it would bring more business."
Brian Hudson, another Falls native, remembers plans for a mega mall and AquaFalls.
"How long did the splash park last," Hudson asked. "I don't think (the theme park) is a good idea. That's something that would be better in Buffalo. Niagara Falls is too small."
David Rosenwasser, president and chief executive officer of the newly formed Niagara Tourism and Convention Corp., and Roger Trevino of Niagara Falls Redevelopment are also involved in bringing the project to the city.
"I can confirm that they met with us," Trevino said. "I think they have some exciting concepts. This certainly is the type of branded entertainment facility that the region so desperately needs. We would entertain continuing further discussions should they be interested in any of the properties or property rights NFR has."
Rosenwasser said he had a brief, but "very pleasant" chat.
"It's a very interesting concept to me," he said. "I don't know anything extensive about their background, but if there's substance there it surely is worth taking a look at."
Rosenwasser said he doesn't know what the group's expectations are, but the Wizard of Oz has a theme with great staying power.
"Many, many years ago I worked on a project that used the theme and it definitely has some merit to further scrutiny," Rosenwasser said. "Beyond that, it's premature to make a statement."
The Oz group is encouraged by Rosenwasser's background, which includes working for the Six Flags theme park business and the Ringling Bros./Barnum & Bailey circus organization.
Both Burch and Wahoski said they'll need support from local, state and federal officials before this fantasy becomes a reality.
State Senator George Maziarz said he knows little about the idea, having heard about it for the first time Thursday, but said any development in downtown Niagara Falls is worth looking at.
"Hopefully, a family entertainment venue is what we are going to attract now in Niagara Falls," Maziarz said. "We have a great state park operation. We've got a casino. I'd be very interested in finding out more and sitting down and talking to them."
The group was turned on to the area by Lewiston resident Brian S. Piper, president of International Business Development Associates. After many months of meeting and Piper's touting of the area, the group decided to meet with NFR.
There is a concern about NFRs contractual obligations in regard to its properties or property rights. But, the group is willing to ride it out and see what happens.
The group is expected to return to the area in about four weeks for further talks.