‘Wild Escape’ – Why The Highlands Theme Park Fizzled

It was supposed to be a $200 million, three-section, 100-acre theme park and not just a waterpark.

Outdoor and indoor roller coasters, a “giant-sized” children’s area, a three-story carousel with its own elevator, a 900-room hotel with an indoor water slide feature, and an 8,000-seat amphitheater were a few of the most exciting revelations on July 26, 2006, when developer Steve Minard announced the project.

Minard was born and raised in Iowa, established a career as an amusement developer, and he was a dreamer who genuinely believed Ohio County was a plausible location for such an attraction. His dream was “Wild Escape,” a “small city,” as he explained it, and Minard said the facility would be the first of 22 similar developments around the county.

Developer Steve Minard presented a few different drawings of his vision of what "Wild Escape" would be at The Highlands.

Developer Steve Minard presented a few different drawings of his vision of what “Wild Escape” would be at The Highlands.

The developer estimated the park would employ as many as 1,500 workers during fair-weather months and approximately 400 during the winter season.

Minard was requesting “TIF financing” for infrastructure needs. TIF, or tax increment financing, allows a local government to capture the projected growth in tax revenues in a specific development area to help finance additional development in that same area. He was afforded office space on the second floor of the City-County Building in downtown Wheeling, and on many occasions he was featured on local radio stations, television stations, and in newspaper articles. In one interview he described his “kiddie-land” concept as follows:

“Junior Bigs is the son of a couple of giants, so his toys are, of course, much larger than the toys that we have played with. The good news is that Junior is not around very often because he goes to boarding school, and then he goes to summer camp, but when he is here, he leaves his toys lying around.

“That means we get to play with those toys like a giant swing set and footballs and whatever else he may leave lying around. Everything in that area will be larger than life, and people are going to be amazed.” 

Minard’s contact information is no longer activated so efforts to reach him for comment proved unsuccessful, but two current Ohio County commissioners who were directly involved with the theme park process explained that if the economic crash in November 2008 had not happened the theme park could be located at The Highlands.

The board room in the Ohio County Commission's office in downtown Wheeling is crowded with possible business concepts.

The board room in the Ohio County Commission’s office in downtown Wheeling is crowded with possible business concepts.

“The biggest issues with the theme park project were the timing and what happened to the economy,” explained Ohio County Commissioner Orphy Klempa. “At that time I was a member of the Ohio County Development Authority, and I can tell you that when the bottom fell out, and everything came to halt, no one was building anything after that.

“The banks got very serious about lending money, and the regulations that were implemented afterward have made it more difficult to get the loans that would be needed for a project of that size. Before that, I can tell you that a theme park at The Highlands was definitely on our plate,” he continued. “It was a part of the original big picture for The Highlands, and everyone wanted it to happen. We believed in it.”

Minard surprised everyone with his confirmation of the project, Ohio County Commissioner Randy Wharton recalled, and the public reaction was intense because of how “out of the box” the concept was at the time. The developer described the project as “moving a mountain, literally, to build a small city.”

“The theme park project was a huge project that was going to cost, at that time, at least $200 million, but then the economy crashed, and development shut down all over the country,” recalled Ohio County Commissioner Randy Wharton. “We thought it could have been great at the time, but there were a lot of steps to take before that announcement should have been made. The good news is that Ohio County did not spend any money to further that project.

“The ball was completely in Steve Minard’s court. Before the development authority would have spent the first dollar, he had a lot to do and a lot to pay for,” he said. “It was going to be an interesting process, but there were a lot more permits that would have been involved and a lot of environmental agencies, too.”

Cabela's Outfitters was the first development at The Highlands in Ohio County.

Cabela’s Outfitters was the first development at The Highlands in Ohio County.

During that late-July afternoon, Ohio County Administrator Greg Stewart announced the agreements with Olive Garden, the AT&T Customer Service Center, and they allowed Minard to address the media too. The amusement park, though, swiped all the headlines.

“Sen. Jay Rockefeller was here because he was very instrumental with bringing the AT&T Center to The Highlands,” said Wharton. “And Steve Minard and his theme park proposal were in the mix. He wanted to make a presentation about what he wanted to do, and we allowed it. That was a mistake.

“In hindsight, if we were in the same situation today, Steve Minard would not make that presentation,” he continued. “It was a mistake and a lesson learned because it wasn’t a done deal. We meet with people most days and these people have some grand plans for The Highlands, but you’ll never hear about it unless it’s a done deal.”

Approximately 650 acres of the 1,000 acres available at The Highlands have been developed, and more flat surface could be created via earthwork, so the space remains if Minard and his “Wild Escape” were to resurface. Klempa and Wharton, however, insisted the theme park idea is a dream of the past.

“It’s no longer on our radar, and I can tell you that I have lost confidence in the gentleman who had proposed it to us in the very beginning,” Klempa said. “We have had a lot of new businesses open since this development went away, and we will have many more in the future, but one of them will not be this theme park concept.

If constructed, the theme park would have been located behind the Walmart.

If constructed, the theme park would have been located behind the Walmart.

“But I can tell you that we are still looking at all of the available options so we can add the entertainment element at the development that would attract people from a 150-mile radius as well as our local residents,” the commissioner said. “But I can tell you one thing: If and when we have a real good possibility, it will remain under wraps until we dot the i’s and cross the t’s.

“What happened with the theme park is a perfect example why we refuse to make any of those kinds of announcements. That gentleman, we know now, jumped the gun before everything was set in stone, and that’s why these days we just let everyone know that there’s always something in the works for that area.”

Wharton not only serves as an Ohio County commissioner, but he also is the president of the Ohio County Development Authority, the business-side of the county’s hilltop development.

“And I tell you that I have not spoken to Minard for at least five years, and I have no idea what he’s doing these days,” he said. “But our focus has shifted away from a project like that to more diversification. There’s a lot of interest in The Highlands, so we are hoping to continue adding retail and restaurants as well as soft industry.

“We’re not going to stop developing The Highlands until we have to,” he continued. “We just added several businesses in the area of the Fusion Restaurant, and there will be some announcements soon. But that’s all I can tell you.”

Several big-box retailers have opened at The Highlands since Minard made his announcement in July 2006.

Several big-box retailers have opened at The Highlands since Minard made his announcement in July 2006.

Whether or not a theme park would have proven successful in Ohio County is a question not to be answered anytime soon, and Klempa admitted the past six years have altered his outlook.

“I know a lot of the people in this area were excited about the theme park when Minard announced it, but if we can’t even fill Wesbanco Arena for a Nailers game or pack the Capitol Theatre for many of the events they have there, what makes anyone think that the economy in this area would have been able to support that kind of park?

“I know it may have attracted people from a pretty good radius, but a lot of that concept also depended on the support of the local population, but people have to have that kind of disposable income,” he said. “Until we can get the kind of jobs in this area that supply that kind of income, I don’t see such a thing working in this county.”

As soon as the theme park proposal was adopted by the Ohio County Development Authority, the need for a second way for motorists to travel in and out of The Highlands was addressed. The project, with an estimated cost of $30 million in 2007, has yet to come to fruition, but Wharton confirmed hope remains alive that it will in the future.

“I think at some point the second interchange will be constructed, but the funding is always an issue. We have a deal with the state and the legislature, though, and we intend to live up to our half of that deal,” Wharton said. “A deal is a deal, as far as we are concerned, as we believe there will be a need for a second way in and out in the future.

“I hope it happens in the future, and we are more than willing to work with the state to make it happen,” he continued. “And I hope it happens within 10 years, maybe sooner than that because it would also open up land owned by the RED (Regional Economic Development Partnership) for future development.”

"Wild Escape" was announced as a $200 million, 100-acre development on the south end of The HIghlands.

“Wild Escape” was announced as a $200 million, 100-acre development on the south end of The HIghlands.

Wharton, Klempa, and Ohio County Commissioner Tim McCormick were all surprised this past week with the sudden closure of the Cracker Barrel Restaurant on Fort Henry Road, but Wharton and Klempa insisted the company’s decision does not reflect a decrease in the development area.

“(Ohio County Administrator) Greg Stewart did not get the notification letter from the company until the day after the company decided to close it down the way they did,” Wharton said. “I don’t think anyone would disagree that it was a pretty poor way to do business, but now they are gone, and we will survive just fine.”

“The property is owned by the Ohio County Development Authority,” Klempa reported, “and the company will continue paying for their lease for the next six months. But they aren’t going to pick up the building, so we’ll have that property too for the next business to use.

“I was surprised by the sudden closure because I have always made a point to drive past it when I’m in that area,’ and it always seemed to me as if they were doing well,” he continued. “I do believe what they did with the sudden closure was a horrible thing to do to their employees, but I guess that’s how corporate America goes about their business sometimes.”

(Photos by Steve Novotney; images provided by Steve Minard)



13 Responses

  1. Coleby Mathews

    The mall, the theme park, the Victorian outlet mall, and myriad other development projects; all failed? Why? Listen to what Klempa says. He essentially says, that we can’t fill the arena for a hockey game, we can’t fill the Capitol for concerts, so why bother trying? What a defeatist attitude. It’s the same attitude shared by every elected official in the region with the exception of maybe Ferns, Storch, and Weld. That’s why the region is in the shape it’s in. It’s time to stop making excuses for why we’re dying and actually do something. The people who run this site have hope for Wheeling and are working to inspire others in the community to make things happen. Unfortunately, people like Orphy Klempa spend too much time shitting on other people’s ideas and their visions and obstruct any efforts to make Wheeling a better place.

    Reply
  2. Anonymous

    The first red flag to me was the figure of 200 million. I have been in the industry for 23 years and he would have had at least 25 million invested in one record breaking coaster (of five he boasted) without any infestructure.

    Reply
  3. Anonymous

    By the drawing, you could make a better small park on Roller Coaster Tycoon. A Water Park would work great on the island, and get the casino on the hill. Anything more than a basic get-away park would be useless. Would you pay to wait in line for two coasters…or spend a little more and go to Kennywood? This Valley is proud, but doesn’t have a night life it wants to maintain. It needs events, but if its showcases and small promotions. It can’t maintain anything semi-major. It struggles with the Nailers, Indoor football is a money pit, and the Cinema at the Highlands is a freezer box. A baseball team would have moved by now. A nightclub would work only if backed by pre-paid memberships and its sad since other small cities had “food and a show” without that. Even with bored frackers, when we had them, it only seemed to add floor traffic to retail..that’s all. Ohio Valley may have sold more trucks, but no big ideas…no big changes…no bigger events.

    Reply
  4. Anonymous

    This sounds like typical Ohio County political bullshit as usually. This town will never be anything close to what it was 75 to 100 years ago. Of course no one wants to go watch a Nailers game or go to the Capitol. All the young people are gone from this city. And as long as old money runs it, nothing will change ever in Wheeling, WV.

    Reply
  5. David

    Did anyone ever vet this guy?

    I did a search a while back and questioned the fact that the Commission would even listen to him. Papas Park, LLC is listed as the company that was developing the project. This same company appears to arrange birthday parties and other activities for children in Alta, IA. Another company Star Show Collectibles is listed. Both appear to be tied to the same websites as the amusement parks.

    I don’t believe that these types of businesses would be associated with a major developer.

    Reply
  6. Lee

    I knew this would never happen. They can blame the economy and recession in 2008 all they want. Steve Minard is a big dreamer whose dreams never come true. He put this same proposal to the people near Lincoln or Omaha, Nebraska back in 1995 or so. Exact same concept artwork with only the name of the park being changed. Only the name in Nebraska was Poppa’s Park. Oh yeah, and like Wild Escape was to be built near a Cabelas. It never happened just like Wild Escape. Both times he announced he had rides ready to be built and they were “in storage.”
    The hold up was never the economy if you followed the story. The hold up was getting approval to fill in a valley from the Army Corp of Engineers and the EPA. They finally got the approval in 2010 or 2011, and that’s when we stopped hearing anything from Minard. Think about it.

    Dates may not be exact, but they are close

    Reply
    • Anonymous

      This area is and was not effected by any recession . Natural gas has made this valley millions. And billions. One day lead to trillions.

      Reply
  7. Bob Dorris

    From the very moment I heard that this Wild Escape Theme Park was going to be built at the Highlands my first thought was: That will be the day”. My other thought was “I’ll Believe it when I see it!” I knew it was never going to happen. Why would anyone be nuts enough to spend 200 million dollars to build something like this is an area when it could only be used five months of the year at best.

    I thought the same thing back when they talked about making the downtown Wheeling area into a huge shopping complex.

    Reply
      • Anonymous

        Same old story time and time again. Full of excuses. Just like the Saint Clairsville Mall, that should have come to down town Wheeling. Can’t say old money had nothing to do with That! Along with crooked City Council, they tried to hinder the development of Cabela’s, remember that.

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