By Amy Silverman
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By Monica Alonzo and Stephen Lemons
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Sanchez's friends call him "U.L.," a leftover from his softball days after he graduated from Mountain View High School in Mesa. In ASH Entertainment, he wears the image of big player like a costume that's a bit too big. In this world, Sanchez is generally dressed in an expensive suit and surrounded by people who pass out business cards and provide answers and advice. They show off elaborate designs and charts decorated with crunched numbers, and talk about "meetings with potential investors." Friends say he's always had a lot of charisma and usually managed to get what he wants. Privately, Sanchez is a guy in jeans who eats lunch in a downtown deli with a newspaper. He doesn't like the developer label, nor the public hullabaloo, and would just as soon be left alone to tinker with his dream.
"It's not like this is the next generation Pentium chip," he says. "It's a theme park. At its finest moment, it's still a park."
Sanchez has also made a lot of mistakes, dumb, regular-guy mistakes that wouldn't count so much if people knew that there was something more to his business. His personal credit record is a mess, and includes tax liens and credit-card-company judgments and student-loan defaults, which have since been paid. The Department of Economic Security successfully went after him last year for child support for a daughter who is now 4 years old. Sanchez says he and the child's mother had an arrangement privately. Apparently, the state didn't like whatever it was.
And then there's the rather bizarre matter of Lynette Himmelberger. She left her husband, Doug, and moved in with Sanchez. Sanchez says he took on her debt. The Himmelbergers claim that Sanchez, courtesy of Lynette, used the Himmelbergers' credit cards to live on while he pursued the theme-park dream. Doug Himmelberger sued Sanchez for charges on the couple's accounts after Lynette returned home to him. The suit was dropped last November. All of this sordid detail has a fraternity of local developers quietly guffawing at ASH Entertainment, but not in public. If he pulls this off, they'll want to be a part of the deal.
That day at the Chuck Box, with the help of two friends and a few more beers, Sanchez began to map out what would be the beginning of a plan that's undergone more metamorphoses than a tadpole on steroids. Sanchez called in sick to work, the three men tossed the plan around and laughed, and then got serious and tossed it around some more.
After a while, it was better, in concept, anyway, than the class project they'd just finished.
The ASH in ASH Entertainment Group Inc. stands for Jim Atkinson, Sanchez and Dave Hamburg, the three present at the table in 1991. Although Atkinson is not involved, Hamburg remains an investor. Sometime later, Mark Weber, an accountant friend who would become vice president of finance for ASH, worked up sketchy financial details. And Sanchez took his theme park, which was then more like a flea circus, on the road.
"The beauty of being green is that you don't see the failure in it," Sanchez says. "You have to kind of walk into it . . . and assume that this is a wide-open market, and if you build it, they will come."
Sanchez is wont to laugh at his lack of experience. Like the time he called up Aerodynamics, the largest roller-coaster manufacturer in the United States. "I said, 'I'm thinking of building a theme park in Phoenix. Can you send me a price list on your roller coasters?' She just sort of laughed," he remembers, and said, "Let me give you some advice . . ." The first actual investment came from a friend who gave Sanchez frequent-flier miles to purchase a plane ticket to the International Association of Amusement Parks and Attractions Convention in Florida.
Sanchez took a redeye to shave the hotel bill, crashed parties and munched down free food. It was the start of what would become a four-year education based on networking, schmoozing and finding a way to meet "the right people."
Along the way, Sanchez held a handful of positions with the Maricopa Community College District, most notably that of lobbyist, which suits him more than he cares to admit.
Sanchez didn't really want to be there, he says, and it must have showed. He wasn't shooting up any career ladders and finally took part-time work to free more time for the theme-park plan. He also left college without graduating.
The dream was more important.
In March, a group of local amusement operators told Gilbert officials in a rather curt letter, "Simply put, this project is not financially viable."
It was signed by the heads of SunCor Development Company (Fiddlesticks and Funtasticks), Golfland Entertainment (Golfland-SunSplash, Big Surf, Water World), GNS Development (Castles 'n' Coasters, Golf N' Stuff) and Scottsdale Property Management (Outer Limits, Castle Golf). None of them had ever met with ASH, and are likely afraid of losing business to a theme park. Still, Sanchez doesn't appear to have two dimes to rub together personally and has adamantly refused to disclose the mystery money behind his project. ASH's official statement is that there are three major investors--two in Arizona, one foreign--who have in some way put up or pledged $9 million. "They are private investors who wish to remain anonymous," says Jim Showalter of Joanne Ralston and Associates public relations firm, who is working for Sanchez.