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From Wasteland to Jazzland
by Greg Thomas (Real Estate writer)

(After years of struggles, doubts and disappointments over JAZZLAND, the deal is finally done and work is set to begin on New Orleans' first major amusement park since Pontchartrain Beach closed in 1983)


For years labeled the project that would never be, Jazzland is happening.

Tuesday, survey engineers will hike across a soggy 220-acre eastern New Orleans tract of virgin land, pound stakes and make way for an invasion of bulldozers.

Within 10 days, sand-laden trucks will rumble down Lake Forest Boulevard, hauling fill up which a theme park will be built.

By November, pilings will be driven to support 25 major rides and attractions, from a wooden replica of the old Zephyr roller coaster to a remake of Pontchartrain Beach.

After years of worry, doubt, and disappointment, the first of an anticipated 1.4 million annual visitors should traipse through the gates of the $80 Million theme park Memorial Day weekend in 2000.

Friday morning in a St. Charles Avenue law office, politicians, developers and lenders signed the final documents that moved Jazzland from a plan to a project under construction.

Some still don't believe it, which doesn't suprise Jazzland creators Tom and Dian Winingder.

"We in New Orleans take a certain pleasure in being very critical of ourselves," Tom Winingder said.

"Harrah's, that was a big hurdle for us," he added, referring to the stalled casino project at the foot of Canal Street and the stay-away message it sent to other potential investors.

The Winingders, who own 220 acres of land near the intersection of Interstate 10 and 510, where the park will be, closed the deal Friday with partner Ogden Entertainment of New York, which is providing cash and expertise.

The state is providing a $10 million grant and the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development has committed $25 million in low-interest loans that will be funneled through the city.  Banks will loan $30 million.  The balance of the $80 million project is from Ogden and the Winingders.

Sandra Gunner, local human resources coordinator for Ogden Entertainment, said screening and training programs for park workers will begin in 1999.   Most training will take place through the New Orleans Private Industry Council.

About 4,000 seasonal jobs will be created, Gunner said.

An employee outreach program will contact local schools, community centers, and churches in the fall, Gunner said.

Jazzland will coordinate hospitality programs at Delgado Community College, the University of New Orleans and Southern University at New Orleans, among others.

A "shared employee" program with hotels and other local tourism businesses is being explored, Gunner said.

Jazzland will be open May through October, encompassing the sticky summer months when even locals would rather be in Iowa.  Local tourism workers idled by the slow summer season can find employment at Jazzland until tourists bust the seams of the French Quarter during the cooler months, Gunner said.

Most employees are expected to be hired and trained three to four months before the opening.

With $25 million in HUD loans, strict guidelines are in place to ensure that park workers are hired from several established "empowerment zones," some of the poorest areas of the city, Gunner said.

And the plan that will ensure participation of women and minority-owned businesses during the construction phase is said to be one of the toughest, most comprehensive ever negotiated for a public-private joint venture, according to city officials.

Construction of the park has a precise schedule, weather permitting.

By December, buildings will rise above the low land that comprises the park site.  Instead of filling in the 140-acre footprint of Phase 1 and covering it with asphalt, workers will elevate roadways, walkways, rides, and buildings, leaving the natural elevation and vegetation alone whereverpossible.

Jazzland general contractor Broadmoor, a subsidiary of Boh Bros. Construction Co., will design and build the park, one of the largest design-build commercial projects in state history, said Broadmoor President John Stewart.

A design team of 50 engineers, architects, artists, and builders will hold a strategy meeting this month, but design of many elements has started, Stewart said.   About 2,400 construction jobs are projected, and most of the workers will be from the New Orleans area, Stewart said.

Jazzland will consist of themed areas based on Cajun Life, Mardi Gras, a kids' land, gospel world and a variety of musical stages.  Rides will include a replica of the Zephyr roller coaster, which will have a 100-foot climb and reach speeds of 30 mph and cost $3 million to build.

The crafts and music of Louisiana will be the stars.  The largest venue will be the Great Lawn, an ampitheater that can accommodate 20,000 visitors.

More than 5,000 parking spaces will be built, and Lake Forest Boulevard will be widened.

Despite the years of hard work, Ogden Entertainment Chief Executive Officer Bill Sims and Winingder said, making Jazzland happen came down to timing.

Ogden Entertainment, a subsidiary of Ogden Corp., the multi-billion dollar New York firm that is a major player in the aviation and energy sectors, began a growth push recently for "site-based entertainment" centers around the world.

Sims, who owned a theme park in Florida before it was bought by Ogden, has been a friend of the Winingders and a believer in Jazzland for years.   Sims joined Ogden two years ago.

"I always believed in the project," Sims said.  His first exposure to an amusement park was as a young man at Pontchartrain Beach.

To Sims, Jazzland will round out the city as a family destination.

Bourbon Street and the French Quarter will always have a decadent allure for adults.  But Jazzland, Sims said, will complement attractions such as the Aquarium of the Americas and the Audobon Zoo, which he ranks among the best in the nation.

Jazzland has been a near-miss countless times, frustrating the Winingders each step of the way.

Over the years, Ogden almost committed to the project--twice.   Both times the entertainment giant backed away at the last minute.

For Tom Winingder, the hardest times were when he watched those deals slip between his fingers.

The Winingders were a hair away from a deal with Six Flags, but the amusement powerhouse balked.

Tom Winingder believed the project would be a money maker, and kept pursuing the dream.  New Orleans is one of the country's few metropolitan areas without a theme park.  "I kept asking myself, 'What am I missing here?'" Winingder said.

As legend has it, Walt Disney considered building Disney World on the same tract of land that has been in Dian Winingder's family for the past 50 years.   "The politics chased him away," she said.

The lowest point for Dian Winingder came last August.  Two months before, the Winingders were on Cloud 9.  Ogden Entertainment signed onto the Jazzland team along with Burroughs & Chapin Co. Inc., a family run amusement company known for turning Myrtle Beach into a tourist mecca.

The Winingders, Mayor Marc Morial, Ogden Corp Chief Executive Officer and Chairman of the Board Richard Ablon and top executives from B&C donned jazz band caps and second-lined behind a Dixie band at Gallier Hall.

Skeptics still weren't conviced.  Two months later, Burroughs & Chapin bailed out, making many believe that Jazzland was once more in peril.

But without skipping a beat, Ogden saved the day by committing to the entire project.

Since then the city, developers and lenders have been hashing out a complicated public-private venture.  In a controversial part of the deal, the City Council waived more than $1 million in annual property taxes.  Instead, Jazzland will funnel a cut of it's revenue, between $500,00 and $1.5 Million per year, to an economic development corporation that will dispers the money to spur growth in eastern New Orleans.   Members of the commission will be appointed by elected officials and Jazzland.

Randy Drew, Ogden Entertainment Senior Vice President for Development, gave Winingder a bearhug Friday after leaving the closing.  He said a general manager for the park will be hired early next year.

By Friday afternoon, Tom and Dian Winingder were aboard an airliner.

Today, after working to bring a family oriented theme park to New Orleans for nearly a decade, the Winingders are strolling along a beach at Mustique, and isolated Caribbean island.

When the Winingders return, they'll start work again.  While Ogden will oversee development and operate Jazzland, there remains 80 acres of undeveloped land that the Winingders own.

That land is pegged for hotel and resort development, park-related stores and possibly multifamily housing.

The Winingders will explore the possibilities as Jazzland takes shape and grows.

For both, Jazzland has been a long haul.

"It's been a very spiritual journey and a very blessed one," Dian Winingder said.