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.

The biggest argument for building a theme park here seems to be that there isn't one. Phoenix is the only city in the top 20 markets in the country without a theme park. Meanwhile, about 25 million people visit Arizona every year, making tourism an $8.1 billion industry here, according to studies done for the Arizona Office of Tourism, which, by the way, favors a theme park. Rawhide, a Western-themed town and steak house in Scottsdale, alone gets an amazing 850,000 visitors a year. ASH Entertainment's current plan projects 1.6 million customers a year, generating revenues of $54 million. The park's operation is estimated at $37.8 million initially. The current plan is to operate year-round, which counts on folks toughing out three-digit temperatures in the summertime. Specifically, 36.5 percent of the park's projected 1.6 million customers are targeted to visit in June through September, when the kids are out of school.

Even ASH's own number crunchers originally called for closing down in the summertime, but Sanchez balked.

"I know it's hot here," he argues. "But go to Florida, go to San Antonio, Texas, go to Washington, D.C., and you've got 95-degree temperatures and 85 to 90 percent humidity, and people go there."

Although it sounds like the old "it's a dry heat" argument, the figures back him up. Castles 'n' Coasters, an outdoor amusement minipark in northwest Phoenix, does a good share of its business in summer. "We have mist systems throughout the park. The kids are out of school," says marketing director Bret Brimhall. "It's one of our busiest times."

Higley is the quintessential rural America of about 50 years ago. It's a place where everyone knows his neighbors, as well as the neighbors' animals. Where kids milk cows before school and neighbors trade eggs for grapefruit. Officially, Higley is a zip code and a school district and a group of folks who live on one- to five-acre ranchettes. It surrounds the land the ASH theme park would be on, and it's the source of the most vocal opposition to it.

"They act like they're doing the community some big favor by building this," says Kathy Shae, one of the Higley residents opposed to the park. "Our kids don't do that. Our kids are in 4-H. We don't consider giving them a theme park as something that's doing them a favor."

ASH walked into the middle of a long-running dispute between Gilbert and Higley. Higley residents have been angry with Gilbert over a lot of things, like the placement of the SanTan Freeway and the town's taking over water service from the Roosevelt Water Conservation District. The Higley and Gilbert school districts have been on the verge of combining for years, but neither has been politically willing to take that step.

The proposed site for the theme park is located in the Higley District. If it's fully developed, it could make the one-school district instantly rich, the way tax money from the Palo Verde nuclear power plant has meant an Olympic-size pool and other goodies for the tiny Ruth Fisher District.

"We were under the impression that Gilbert was going to preserve medium- to low-density residential zoning out here," adds Charlene Taylor, who's lived in the community for 14 years. That appears to be history. Subdivisions are springing up as far south as Apache Junction, and a master-planned community of 2,000 homes is planned south of Williams Gateway. Gilbert wants commercial development and appears to want this theme park. A full 80 percent of Gilbert is made up of residential development, making it the bedroom community for East Valley economic development. Mesa has Fiesta Mall and Superstition Springs. Chandler has Intel. Gilbert has tract homes. And as the housing market comes increasingly close to its peak, Gilbert needs a tax base in a big way. Sanchez's future parcel, currently owned by U-Haul Credit Corporation, sits across the street from Williams Gateway, slated to be a major industrial and education facility and, eventually, a secondary commercial airport for the Valley. The Southern Pacific Railroad runs through a portion of the land, which is naturally divided on one end by the Roosevelt Canal. And if the state ever develops the SanTan Freeway, which is on some plan somewhere waiting for funding, it would run within two miles of the theme park.

"The theme park would really be a positive thing for the airport," says Jan Dodson, director of development for Williams Gateway. "It's the residential development that we're concerned about because of the noise issue surrounding the airport."

But the Higley neighbors don't like Sanchez. To them, he's a fast-talking deal maker who's sold some greedy city people on a moneymaking scheme that will surely ruin their lifestyle. "I have yet to hear Ulysses Sanchez give a straight answer," Shae says. She and other opponents have vowed to circulate petitions for a referendum in the county, which would take more than 64,000 signatures. Peering out from behind round eyeglasses and sipping a Coke out of a glass meant for old fashioneds, Sanchez is clearly a man obsessed. That's what keeps this project going in the absence of, say, a major corporation with a lot of development experience. Sanchez and company are busy working on their next challenge. At preliminary meetings, county staff whispered the word that makes the entire Valley cringe: traffic. ASH is set to present its formal application for zoning to the county in late June. But county officials say it won't get off the table without a serious plan for ushering carloads of theme-park goers through the most congested part of the Valley. Sanchez, as always, is confident, even though it means digging deeper into his bag of mystery money while the rest of Arizona watches, some waiting for him to fail.

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