FUN IN THE 122 DEGREE SIGN SUN

ULYSSES SANCHEZ WANTS TO TAKE PHOENIX FOR A RIDE. AND HIS DREAM OF A $200 MILLION THEME PARK IN THE DESERT MAY NOT BE AS CRAZY AS IT SOUNDS.

Industry insiders estimate that for every ten to 15 projects on the drawing board, two to three actually go into production.

"It takes $180 million to $200 million to do this," says Ali Fartash, lead designer on the ASH project. "It's not going to be easy to raise that kind of money."

Fartash is with the firm of Battaglia and Associates, and a good example of what's most impressive about Sanchez and ASH: the companies they've been able to connect with.

Battaglia and Associates, which designed the still-nameless ASH theme park, is a Los Angeles-based firm headed by former Disney designer Richard Battaglia. The firm is generally highly regarded, having created projects such as Disney World in Orlando, the 1986 World's Fair in Vancouver, British Columbia, and several foreign ventures, mostly in Asia. Battaglia is also responsible for Lotte World, a $1 billion entertainment and resort complex in Seoul, South Korea, that includes a $150 million international theme park. In short, Battaglia knows theme parks like Sam Walton knew drugstores, and, somehow or another, ASH has managed to get Battaglia under contract.

Along with Battaglia is HNTB Architects, designers of Arizona Center and Herberger Theater Center. ASH has set up housekeeping in the offices of HNTB, and architect Scott Ebert doubles as vice president of development for ASH. Sanchez has signed on Valley zoning czar Paul Gilbert to shepherd his project through the county, as well as publicist Jim Showalter. Showalter guards Sanchez like a bulldog and is quick to pull out cue cards with numbers on them to emphasize a point. Los Angeles-based Economic Research Associates is crunching numbers for the project. And the Tucson-based Larson Company, whose projects include Superstition Springs Center, is working on the peripheral design particulars.

Sanchez's ability to get things done extends to the political sphere, too. He convinced the State Legislature to pass a law in 1994 (it was amended earlier this year) allowing municipalities to create entertainment districts. They may then sell revenue bonds called STAR bonds to finance the infrastructure of major entertainment developments--like the ASH theme park. The bonds are repaid using sales-tax money from gate receipts and retail purchases within the park for up to 20 years. Under the law, the municipality--in this case, Gilbert--is not backing the bonds like it would a municipal bond. Instead, the state is deferring collection of sales-tax money until the bonds are repaid. Another political move transported the park from Gilbert into Maricopa County. The site slated for ASH's theme park is just outside Gilbert in county territory.

After ASH took some tremendous heat in public hearings, the group decided to bypass Gilbert and seek rezoning from the county. Gilbert intends to annex the parcel after it is rezoned by the county. The means are not as important as the end, say the believers, who seem firm in their support of Sanchez's dream. "Phoenix is an ideal place for a theme park," says Dave Holtz, a construction estimator in on the early stages of the ASH design. He spent decades at Fox Studios before branching out on his own and has since consulted on projects such as Disneyland, Tokyo Disneyland, Universal Studios and theme parks in the Middle East.

"It's got a major airport. It's got a growing population. The hot weather is something you can live with. Texas has its parks, Georgia has its parks, California has its parks . . . "There's a lot of people out there who want to do a theme park. It's the gifted individual who can get people to put money into it."

Holtz's belief is shared by Michael Dollin, an architect at Urban Earth Design, who has worked on the ASH project, and has also been a sort of sounding board for Sanchez during the last four years.

"I think there's a lot of merit to the project in terms of all the numbers and the thinking," Dollin says. "Somebody's going to do it. And I believe ASH Entertainment has done the best job yet of bringing it together."

Sanchez's dream team is waiting in the wings, however, to see if he can jump what may be the highest hurdle yet: county zoning approval, essentially the green light for this project.

"We all believe that this is going to make it if they can get the zoning and raise the money," says Ali Fartash, Battaglia's lead designer on the ASH project.

Within months of retiring as head of Chrysler Corporation, Lee Iacocca invested in a production company to bring Broadway's Will Rogers Follies to Branson, Missouri, the Ozark home of country music entertainment. He also pondered starting a merchant bank to finance new ventures in entertainment. Entertainment is to the 1990s what health care was to the 1980s: big, big business.

Business Week last year calculated that the entertainment and recreation industries added 200,000 workers in 1993--12 percent of all net new employment in the United States. Americans have spent more than $340 billion in each of the last two years entertaining themselves at theme parks, casinos and video arcades.

Companies like Walt Disney, Blockbuster and Matsushita's MCA are breaking ground for more than $13 billion in theme parks, theatres, casinos and ballparks across the nation. And they've been joined in recent years by movie companies like Paramount Pictures and Time Warner. Las Vegas has, in recent years, seen a boom unprecedented since Bugsy Siegel came to town. Casino owners saw a way to grab the family-entertainment dollar and started building theme parks, like the $1.1 billion MGM Grand and Mirage Resorts' $475 million Treasure Island. Visitors to Sin City jumped last year by 20 percent, to about 29 million. The question is not whether there is money in entertainment, but whether there's enough to go around--enough to give Arizona a share of the pie.

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