SANFORD, Maine — Bill Underwood has a vision to bring a theme park to Sanford. It’s a vision that he believes has the potential to revitalize the Sanford community and bring a much-needed boost to Maine’s economy.
It’s also one that officials in neighboring Wells are closely following.
“Obviously, it’s way too early to speculate as to the issues or concerns that we might have, but the first and most concern would be traffic impacts around the Exit 19 turnpike exit in Wells and traffic heading up Route 109,” said Wells Selectman Bob Foley. “Having said that, a new theme park-type attraction, done right, could have a big impact on the economy of the state and the region. Our local hotel and restaurants could see an off-season or even in-season increase in revenue. It could add to the economy and jobs all around.”
Underwood, of Springvale, who formed York Pines Inc. last spring, hired consultants knowledgeable in the entertainment industry to conduct a feasibility analysis to determine if Sanford could be a potential location for a theme park.
The former Pennsylvania Public Transit Director, who also owned his own travel business, said the idea was sparked from his work on Sanford’s Economic Growth Council.
“I asked myself, if you were going to try to target market an industry, Maine’s number one industry is tourism,” said Underwood, who believes Sanford is strategically located within 10 minutes of the Maine Turnpike and close to Route 16 in New Hampshire.
The 100-plus page report was completed and delivered to York Pines Inc. a few weeks ago and Underwood said he is still digesting the report, which was funded by $35,000 from York Pines Inc., $30,000 from business owner Allen Mapes and private investors and $5,000 from the town of Sanford. Underwood said it includes an implementation analysis with suggestions for how to move forward with the theme park idea and how to attract potential developers.
Underwood, who envisions a four-season theme park resort with Maine-themed attractions that could include an indoor waterpark, upscale campground and outdoor adventures, said public feedback has been overwhelming.
“We’ve had a very positive response from locals and state officials,” he said.
Sanford Mayor Tom Cote said the prospect of a theme park in Sanford is an exciting one for the city but also for the state.
“A project of this size would bring hundreds of jobs to Southern Maine and further strengthen the coastal region as a premier family vacation destination,” he said. “For Sanford, it would be a major step forward in our economic recovery.”
This past July, Larry Wyatt of Wyatt Design Group and Frederick Cochrane of Cochrane Consulting, who conducted the feasibility analysis, participated in a three-day workshop with state and local officials to discuss the potential for developing a theme park in Sanford. Participants included Sanford City Manager Steve Buck, the state of Maine Senior Tourism Officer Phil Savignano, state Commissioner of Economic Development George Gervais and Gov. Paul LePage.
LePage’s press secretary, Adrienne Bennett, who was with the governor when he attended the workshop, said he was impressed with the presentation and was supportive of the project, which could bring economic development to the area.
Wyatt and Cochrane have extensive experience working in the entertainment industry, including work with entertainment giants Warner Bros., Paramount Studios, Universal Studios, Legoland and Disney World.
Wyatt believes the 28 million tourists who visit Maine each year would be attracted to a theme park in Sanford.
In an August 2013 press release issued by the Wyatt Design Group, Wyatt said, “We are very pleased to be included in this exciting process for Southern Maine. Working with Fred and the York Pines group this past week, we have begun the vision for the ideal Maine destination. Our next steps will refine that vision into a creative, exciting concept that embraces current trends in leisure travel and complements the State of Maine’s tourism mission to become the premier four-season destination in New England.”
Local concerns include traffic for surrounding communities, particularly Wells.
“It is an interesting idea that, if got going, would attract a lot of visitors, which may cause a more congestion on Route 109 and may be our problem,” said Wells Town Manager Jon Carter. “Ironically, impediments in traffic flow has been seen as an issue for Sanford attempting to develop an industrial base in South Sanford and wants the shortest travel times from Exit 19 to their industrial park as a marketing tool. Hopefully the two can go hand in hand.”
Underwood says it is very early in the decision-making process and he hopes that everyone will maintain a positive attitude and work together through issues such as traffic concerns.
“These issues can be solved,” Underwood said.
Cote said there are obstacles ahead, but they can be overcome.
“I don’t believe anyone underestimates the enormity of this task,” he said. “There will be many obstacles ahead, but I believe we have a tenacious group that will make every effort to see this through.”