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FUN IN THE 122 DEGREE SIGN SUN

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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.

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.

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Lisa Davis