National waterpark resort chain says it will not build at Caldwell and Hwy 99 to focus on existing sites already under construction elsewhere and invest in existing resorts
VISALIA – A national waterpark resort is pulling out of Tulare County, taking millions in tax dollars and thousands of jobs with them.
In a Feb. 24 email, Great Wolf Lodge released a statement to The Sun-Gazette saying the company had reached “mutually agreeable” terms to terminate its deal with the Sequoia Gateway at Caldwell Avenue and Highway 99. Great Wolf was planning to build a 525-room hotel and indoor waterpark on 35 acres of the highway commercial center. The resort complex would have also included restaurants, meeting space, spas, and a family activity center.
Jason Lasecki, corporate communications director for Great Wolf, said the company’s decision to pull out of the project in Tulare County was to focus on other sites already under construction.
“As we look to expand the Great Wolf Lodge experience to more families, our current priorities are to continue investing in our existing resorts, successfully open the resorts currently under construction and pursue growth in areas most under-served by Great Wolf Lodge,” Lasecki said in the statement.
Tulare County Economic Development Director Mike Washam said the timing of Great Wolf’s decision had more to do with an opportunity for the developer to sell the land to someone else. Washam said there is another developer interested in purchasing the entire 35 acres so the project could end on good terms for all involved.
Washam went on to say Great Wolf already had five parks under construction and had concerns about the cost of construction materials, high interest rates and a labor shortage. He said the company did not say if the project would still be viable if it had moved faster through the design and planning phase.
“I think potentially it could have gotten done a little quicker and potentially would have been under construction by now, it would have been one of the ones that got through, while maybe one of the other parks would not at this time,” Washam said. “But I can’t confirm that.”
The last major pre-construction item was to finalize a sewer agreement between Great Wolf, the developer and the City of Visalia. Unfortunately, some of the company’s other projects were progressing faster through the pre-construction process and the agreement was not complete by the time another offer was made on the land.
“We are extremely appreciative of both Tulare County and the City of Visalia for their partnership throughout this exploration process,” Lasecki said.
Visalia Mayor Brian Poochigian said the city was disappointed by Great Wolf’s decision not to locate in Visalia but that they appreciated the cooperative effort between the company, county and city throughout the process.
“It is unfortunate that the current national economic conditions and anti-business regulations coming out of California have resulted in their decision,” Poochigian said.
Great Wolf did not mention state regulations as a factor in its decision but did say it was “excited to continue supporting California’s robust tourism economy with our 500 and 600 room resorts in Northern and Southern California. Less than a four-hour drive distance away from a majority of California residents, these two resorts currently provide a close, convenient and carefree getaway for families in the state, while also providing more than 1,300 direct jobs and significant tax revenue.”
The City of Visalia was expected to capture the greatest share of off-site visitor spending for both general retail and food service, about $15 million annually as well as supporting 227 jobs in local cities, according to an economic impact study done by Sacramento-based Economic & Planning Systems, Inc. (EPS) in summer 2022.
Under a tax incentive play approved by the Tulare County Board of Supervisors on July 26, 2022, the county would rebate Great Wolf 100% of the transient occupancy tax (TOT), also known as a bed tax, it collects on the resort for the first five years, 75% in years six through 10 and 50% of the tax collected in years 11-15. Beginning in year 16, the county would collect 100% of the TOT, or about $6.5 million annually. Great Wolf would have used the tax rebates to pay their deferred impact fees without interest over the five-year initial period to alleviate up-front costs of building the $228 million project.
The analysis by EPS showed the resort would receive about $87 million over 15 years from the TOT rebate while the county would receive $33 million over 15 years. The report also estimated the county would receive an additional $1.5 million per year in property, sales and other taxes, totaling $22.5 million over the same 15-year timeframe. In all, the county expected Great Wolf to generate more than $8 million in tax revenue per year. That’s far more than the estimated $238,000 the county will provide the property in services, such as public safety. EPS said Great Wolf would have had a total economic impact from both direct and indirect sources of $1.7 billion in Tulare County.
Great Wolf would also have been a major job creator. EPS estimated construction of the 35-acre resort would have generated about 1,000 jobs. Once open, the hotel and waterpark would have employed an estimated 660 people or more, as the actual number of rooms could be as high as 700.
Visalia Chamber CEO Gail Zurek called the loss of millions in sales tax dollars and hundreds of jobs “heartbreaking” and said local officials should look at this as an opportunity to evaluate how it will handle future projects of this magnitude.
“While it is easy to blame the economy or state policies, we need to look hard at what worked and what didn’t so we can be successful next time,” Zurek said. “This evaluation process is critical in understanding the most effective ways to meet the needs of businesses.”
Washam said Great Wolf’s decision to terminate this project at this time does not shut the door on a possible return to the area for another waterpark resort in the future. He said Tulare County is strategically located between Great Wolf’s existing resorts in Manteca, Calif. and Anaheim, Calif. and is part of an overall strategy within the state.
“When they are ready to put a place back in California this area will definitely be the location … fingers crossed,” Washam said. “We’re trying to leave everyone on good terms and hopefully something will work out in a few years.”