Water park for Howe Caverns?

Water park for Howe Caverns?
By Patsy Nicosia

Impressed with what they saw when they visited there, a group of developers is interested in building an indoor water park and 250-room hotel on 40 acres at Howe Caverns.
The $75 million year-round project would mean as many as 300 full- and part-time jobs and could open for business as soon as 2010.
But—and it’s a big but—the project is still in the very preliminary planning stages and there’s still a lot that needs to be done to make it a reality.
“I’d love to see it happen,” said Bob Holt, general manager at Howe Caverns. “It would really complement not only what we have at the Caverns, but even attractions in Cooperstown.
“But if you’re looking at it on a scale of 100 percent, we’re only 20 percent there.”
The project is being proposed by Destinations Development Group, a private company headed by Chuck Roarty, who was a vice president for Six Flags when it built the Great Escape theme park and indoor water park and lodge in Queensbury in 2005.
Mr. Roarty is no longer associated with Six Flags, but what’s being talked about for Howes Cave would be similar to what’s in Queensbury and would also include banquet facilities and restaurants, Mr. Holt said.
Robert Schwartz, managing director of the Schwartz Heslin Group in Latham, a financial management and business planning firm that’s acting as a consultant for Destinations Development, acted as a broker for the sale of Howe Caverns to Emil Galasso and Charles Wright two years ago.
The group first contacted Howe Caverns about six months ago, Mr. Holt said, “and we thought they were interested in buying the Caverns. Emil said, ‘No way.’
“But when we found out what they had in mind and they took us to the Great Escape, both Emil and I were very impressed.”
Typically, Mr. Holt said, indoor water parks operate at near-full occupancy; the rooms are rented and access to the park itself is included in the package.
One of the things that makes Howe Caverns attractive to Destinations Development, both Mr. Holt and Mr. Schwartz said, is that the Caverns are open year-round.
The attraction would be located uphill from the Caverns, Mr. Holt said, on a parcel of land shifted from the Empire Zone at Cobleskill Stone Products’ Howe Caves quarry to the Caverns property two weeks ago. Final approval on that “shift” still hinges on the state.
It would require some zoning changes, Mr. Holt said, as well as relocating about 6,800 feet of Sagendorf Corners Road in the Towns of Cobleskill and Schoharie for a second entrance.
Water parks typically use recycled on-site water, Mr. Holt said, and that water would probably be trucked in from outside.
Destinations Development would own the facility, but Howe Caverns would own “a piece of it,” Mr. Holt said.
“There’s a lot of work to be done, but we think this could be a great fit for us,” he added. “We’re excited. We can’t help but be.”
Mr. Schwartz said one of the reasons he’s especially interested in Howe Caverns is its reputation throughout the Northeast.
“You mention Howe Caverns to any adult, and they smile, because they remember going there when they were kids,” he said.
He also feels a water park like the one being proposed could be a natural link to Schoharie County and the Cooperstown Museums and Hall of Fame.
“I realize it’s not very scientific, but I spent a day in the Howe Caverns parking lot asking families that were leaving where they were going next,” he said. “The ‘Schwartz test’.
“They said, ‘Home.’ This would keep them here—and these things are typically wildly successful.”
A preliminary marketing study for the project has already been completed; next will be work with architects and engineers, nailing down a budget, and putting together the financing, Mr. Schwartz said.
The project would also require some zoning approvals and developers are also counting on Empire Zone benefits.
“There’s no specific timetable, but if it all comes together, I could see this breaking ground in 2009 and opening in 2010.
“We think it could have a tremendous spillover into the community, but we only want it if the community wants it.”
Alicia Terry, director of planning for the county, said she believes a project like this would be a good way to extend tourists’ visits.
“I look at it as another key piece of our tourism infrastructure,” she said. “We really haven’t seen something of this size and scale in a long time.
“In Lake George, they’ve linked it with the ski centers, which is something we could do, too. It’s never over till it’s over and all the contracts are signed, but I think it could have tremendous potential.”

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