Nearly 10 years ago, a theme park in New Orleans East called Jazzland opened with much fanfare. It closed slightly more than one year later after its international operator pronounced it a failure. Six Flags next tried its hand, but Hurricane Katrina flooded the park in 2005, and the company, which has since filed for bankruptcy, never reopened it.
Now a new Baton Rouge-based company called Southern Star Amusement wants to redevelop the park and, according to a consultant with the project, has signed a letter of intent with a big-name partner—Nickelodeon Recreation, a division of the popular children’s television network. To help finance the deal, it has filed for $100 million in GO Zone bonds from a quasi-city agency in New Orleans that oversees the property.
It’s an ambitious move for an upstart company with no real track record in the theme-park industry and a CEO who flies below radar. It was as recent as late June that Southern Star Amusement was officially incorporated as a Baton Rouge company. And it has some questioning how a new player on the scene hopes to succeed in a location that has been a chronic trouble spot for the Crescent City and at a time when major theme-park operators are selling off properties and filing for bankruptcy.
New Orleans city leaders are cautious in their reaction. They like the idea, but say it’s one of many plans on the table and has a long way to go before becoming reality. Industry observers are downright skeptical.
“This thing is going to be tied up for a while, and they’ll never get the financing to back this project based on its history,” says Dennis Spiegel, an industry consultant with International Theme Park Services in Cincinnati. “It just doesn’t make sense.”
Southern Star officials beg to differ. The company’s CEO, Danny Rogers, 58, is bullish on the market and predicts the redeveloped park, with its themed attractions and water rides, will be a world-class facility on the caliber of Disneyland in Anaheim, Calif., and Walt Disney World in Lake Buena Vista, Fla.
“People are going to come from all over to come to this place,” he says. “This is going to put that park on the map in no uncertain terms. That may even be a bit of an understatement.”
So just who is Rogers and his Southern Star Amusement? The company first surfaced publicly in 2008, when it announced through media releases its intentions of trying to acquire Six Flags New Orleans from the parent company and redevelop it. Promising to pump $70 million into the park, Southern Star’s plans called for adding a water park and doubling the number of rides and attractions at the property, which has been closed since Hurricane Katrina in 2005.
In media reports at the time, Rogers identified himself as a California native who got his start working at carnivals as a pre-teenager. He described Southern Star Amusement as an unincorporated business that was based out of his home in Bay St. Louis, Miss., and said he was working with potential investors on the project. Nothing ever materialized, however, and late last year the company issued a news release that it was disbanding.
The company resurfaced in May, announcing its renewed interest in the Six Flags property. In June, just 10 days after Six Flags Inc. filed for bankruptcy, Southern Star officially incorporated as a Louisiana company based in Baton Rouge. In early July, it signed the agreement with Nickelodeon Recreation.
Despite having a marquee-name partner on board, Rogers remains tight-lipped about his 30-plus years in the business. He calls himself a nuts-and-bolts guy whose expertise is in the mechanical end of theme parks. He says he is a consultant who first became interested in the Six Flags project when inspecting the rides post-Katrina for a company that wanted to buy some of them. He declines to identify the names of the companies or projects with which he has been involved.
“I started out in carnival and worked my way up … but that doesn’t mean I’ve been some high-powered CEO in an amusement park company,” he says. “I’m not ashamed of my background, but this isn’t about Danny Rogers.”
Southern Star’s other top executive—only other executive—is also vague about her professional credentials. Tonya Pope is the CFO and the agent of record. She is a Slidell native and an LSU engineering graduate who spent a decade working on flight simulators for Lockheed Martin at the NASA’s Michoud Assembly Facility in New Orleans East. She returned to Baton Rouge a couple of years ago because she loves the area, and says she has been involved here in a variety of projects.
Her previous experience in the theme-park business comes mainly from an endeavor a couple of years ago called Padia Parks, a company she created to work on a theme park development in Orlando, Fla.
“That’s on hold for now,” she says.
Pope says she met Rogers last year through industry connections and shared his interest in developing a theme park at the New Orleans site. She incorporated Southern Star Amusement in Baton Rouge because she lives here. But the company’s real headquarters is located in New Orleans East at a Lake Forest Boulevard office building near the park site.
The pair has an experienced consultant helping them navigate the tricky waters of public-private financing, which is essentially what GO Zone bonds are. David Crais is a New Orleans native and business consultant based on the Northshore. Since Katrina, he has been active in New Orleans redevelopment. He credits Rogers and Pope for bringing Nickelodeon to the table, but he says they will not play a role in the operation of the park.
“Nickelodeon will have the ultimate say so over whomever is brought in to run the park,” Crais says. “The people we’re talking to are coming from Hollywood, Disney, Busch Gardens. They’re top people in the theme-park business.”
Details as to how Nickelodeon came to be interested in the project remains unclear, and the company declines to comment on its involvement. A spokesperson for Viacom, which owns Nickelodeon, will say only that “there are many viable locations for future Nickelodeon theme parks, one of which could be New Orleans.”
This wouldn’t be Nickelodeon’s first foray into theme parks, however. The company has areas inside several theme parks around the country, as well as in Australia and Canada, that include branded rides, attractions, live stage shows, costume characters and merchandising. While they have a presence in a variety of markets, industry experts do not consider Nickelodeon to be a major player in the world of theme parks.
“They have a very narrow product base which limits their demographic,” Spiegel says.
Before a Nickelodeon park is a reality in New Orleans, however, Southern Star Amusement will have to secure $100 million in GO Zone bonds from the New Orleans Industrial Development Board, an agency that was created to enter into the lease with Six Flags several years ago. The state bond commission will have to sign off on the project and, of course, investors will have to be brought on board to buy the bonds. The IDB will consider Southern Star’s request in August.
There are complications as well. The IDB doesn’t have clear title to the property. The city also owes the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development some $16 million on a Section 108 loan that was used in part to help build the park. And Southern Star Amusement and Nickelodeon aren’t the only hopefuls looking to redevelop the property.
But Southern Star officials are optimistic their plan will prevail because they have such a prominent partner on board with Nickelodeon.
“This is huge and it’s going to impact all of Louisiana,” Rogers says. “It’s no longer going to be just some little park.”
FLOODED AND FLAGGED
Six Flags New Orleans is located on a low-lying section of New Orleans East, with a six-foot earthen berm along its perimeter creating an artificial basin. When the park’s drainage pumps failed during Hurricane Katrina in 2005, the berm retained the combination of rainwater and overflow from Lake Pontchartrain and submerged the park grounds in four to seven feet of corrosive, brackish floodwater. The floodwater was not drained for more than one month after the storm.
Damage reports by Six Flags inspectors stated that 80% of the park buildings were demolished, all of the flat rides were destroyed by long-term saltwater immersion and both the wooden track and steel superstructure of the Mega Zeph roller coaster were damaged likely beyond repair. The only ride to escape relatively unscathed was Batman: The Ride because of its elevated station platform and corrosion-resistant support structure. Batman: The Ride was relocated to Six Flags Fiesta Texas in San Antonio for the 2008 season and renamed Goliath.
NICK OF TIME
Nickelodeon Recreation began in 1990 and since has grown to include a diverse range of complex and specialized business segments including hotel resorts, touring family theatricals and theme park attractions.
It has installations at Universal Studios in Orlando, Fla., and Hollywood, Calif.; “Nick Central” lands at Charlotte, N.C., Cincinnati, Richmond, Va., Santa Clara, Calif., Vaughan, Ontario; and Gold Coast, Australia; and “Nickelodeon Universe” at the Mall of America in Bloomington, Minn.
It also has a 777-unit Nickelodeon Family Suites by Holiday Inn (above) in Orlando, Fla., which features two- and three-bedroom suites that contain a bedroom for parents and a Nick-themed bedroom for children.