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FUN IN THE 122 DEGREE SIGN SUN

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"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.

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.

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Lisa Davis