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FUN IN THE 122 DEGREE SIGN SUN

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"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.

"When all you've got is the idea," observes one developer who is quietly cheering for Sanchez, "you're kind of out there naked, so people just think you're nuts until some big guy comes along and steals it from you."

If the project doesn't happen, it won't be for lack of trying. And in trying to hold on to his dream park, Ulysses Sanchez may be on the ride of his life.

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Lisa Davis