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Second Battle of Fredericksburg

Jud Honaker, a senior executive with the Silver Companies in Fredericksburg, was visiting Wisconsin Dells, Wisc., last summer with his family on vacation. The city’s claim to fame was a cluster of attractions that made it the indoor waterpark capital of the world. And the biggest, most grandiose of all the waterparks was Kalahari Resorts. Honaker took one look at the African-themed tourist magnet and decided he had to get one of those back home.
As it happened, Honaker was president-commercial development for Silver Companies, and it was his job to find big-ticket draws for the “Celebrate Virginia” tourist district on the far side of Interstate 95 from historic, downtown Fredericksburg. Silver Companies began calling upon Todd Nelson, president of the Kalahari organization, with the hope of persuading him to expand to Virginia. As it happened, Nelson was poking around the Williamsburg area, where industry leader Great Wolf Lodge had opened a waterpark in March 2005.
Nelson didn’t respond at first, but the Silver Companies didn’t let up. “They’re a pretty persistent guys,” Nelson says. Eventually, he relented, meeting them at another Kalahari facility in Sandusky, Ohio, to hear their sales pitch. Intrigued, he let the Silver Companies fly him to Fredericksburg. They made a good case, Nelson says. The city on the Rappahannock River was closer to major population centers than Williamsburg, and it offered prime real estate right off I-95.
After months of negotiations, Kalahari announced in November 2007 that it planned to build a $200 million, indoor waterpark, resort and conference center in Fredericksburg. Silver Companies CEO Larry D. Silver said he envisioned Kalahari anchoring a complex of tourist destinations in Celebrate Virginia, which in turn would become “the ideal base” from which families would explore historical and recreational attractions throughout Virginia and the Washington region. Gov. Timothy M. Kaine chimed in, stating that Kalahari would “help make Virginia a top tourism destination and bring millions of dollars in tax revenue for our state and local economy.”
An economic impact study suggested that Kalahari would bring one million visitors a year, injecting $122 million annually into the local economy, creating more than 800 jobs and generating $5.9 million a year in local taxes for the City of Fredericksburg.
The announcement seemed an economic-development dream come true. There was just one hitch. Kalahari was demanding incentives. The proposed agreement called for the city to exempt the waterpark from $1.6 million in water/sewer connection fees, waive hundreds of thousands of dollars in planning fees, and rebate back to Kalahari 47.5 percent of all local tax revenues generated by the project, an anticipated $2.9 million a year, for 20 years. All told, the incentives package amounted to roughly $60 million — a huge inducement for a city of only 20,000 inhabitants.
Although some Fredericksburg residents endorsed the project, many others reacted negatively. Councilwoman Debby Girvan, running for mayor against incumbent Thomas Tomzak, contended that the city gave away too much to Kalahari in the contract negotiations. Others decried the idea of re-branding the city from a historic town associated with George Washington, James Monroe and Robert E. Lee into a theme park noted for such rides as the Tanzanian Twister and the Swahili Swirl. The project also fueled concerns that City Council had gone incentive crazy — Kalahari was only the latest in a long line of businesses receiving inducements from the city. (Full disclosure: My mother, who lives in the Fredericksburg historic district, is an active and vocal opponent of the project.)
The Kalahari invasion, which may be the biggest uproar in town since the Union army under General Ambrose Burnsides crossed the Rappahannock in 1862, raises questions that reverberate throughout Virginia. When it comes to tax incentives, how much is too much? In an increasingly knowledge-intensive economy, is tourism an industry that a metropolitan region really wants to build its economic base upon? Finally, how decisive should historical heritage be in maintaining a regional sense of identity and pride?
For the Silver Cos, the stakes are higher than Kalahari alone. The waterpark, hopes Honaker, will jump-start the “Celebrate Virginia” development, which has sputtered fitfully since its roll-out a decade ago. If City Council passes the third of three resolutions required to approve the project, as it appears poised to do in mid-May, the Wisconsin enterprise could catalyze tourism-related development in the city’s tourism zone. Conversely, if the deal falters, it could hopelessly taint the tourism initiative, which has been marred by repeated setbacks.
The City of Fredericksburg annexed the land on the west side of I-95 in 1985 with the aim of providing room for growth. Around that time the Silver Companies acquired thousands of acres of land west of the Interstate, both within the Fredericksburg city limits and north of the river in Stafford County.

Celebrate Virginia. Map Source: Silver Companies.

In 1995 the city rezoned land at the I-95/Route 3 interchange for intensive commercial development. This project, Central Park, became the largest retail complex in the Fredericksburg region. By purely fiscal measures, the project was a huge success. According to Honaker, original forecasts predicted that the complex would generate $7.2 million a year in taxes for the city. In actuality, he says, the number peaked around $16 million, although it has dipped recently. On the other hand, critics castigate Central Park as planning disaster. Accessible only by automobile and arranged in an disjointed strip of big boxes and shopping centers, the retail district contributed to the overloading of Rt. 3, now notorious for its traffic congestion. Moreover, the project accelerated the region’s evolution into a totally auto-dependent economy — an attribute that is causing economic hardship now with gasoline selling at $3.50 a gallon.
Around 1998, the city took up the issue of rezoning the 2,200-acre tract of land north of Central Park into a tourist zone. The land had previously been zoned for housing, which would have created a net tax burden on the city if developed. Calculating that they had maxed out the potential for retail development in the area, the Silver Cos. came back with a big idea: Develop the land as a tourism destination. Bring in complementary attractions that would draw visitors from hundreds of miles around, generating economic activity and tax revenues the city would never capture otherwise. Despite a massive public outcry, City Council rezoned the land for commercial development.
Although the name “Celebrate Virginia” technically applies to all the contiguous Silver properties west of I-95, in popular usage it refers to the tourism zone. A Silver Cos. promotion describes the project as a “unique blend of live, work, play, shop, visit and stay.” A narrator intones, “We gave a lot of thought to the word Celebrate Virginia. Celebrate the mountains. Celebrate the ocean. Celebrate the music. Celebrate the history of Virginia. Celebrate the foods, and the culture of Virginia. There are so many different themes and promotions and festivals that can be promoted on our site by using that name.”
The Silver Cos., founded by Carl D. Silver, is one of the largest and most profitable development enterprises in Virginia. Virginia Business magazine guesstimates the family’s net worth to be $800 million. As the leading developer in the Fredericksburg region, the Silvers moved from successful project to successful project, culminating with Central Park. But Celebrate Virginia has been far more difficult than anyone anticipated. Ironically, the project that may save it — Kalahari — has
no connection whatsoever to the music, history or culture of Virginia.
When you drive through Celebrate Virginia today, there’s almost nothing there. You’ll see an Expo Center and three hotels nearby, but they are surrounded by vast parking lots and empty fields, some with overgrown grass, others stripped bare to the clay. You’ll find islands of woods, segments of giant concrete pipe laying scattered about, and black plastic erosion fencing stapled to sticks in the ground. And roads. Celebrate Virginia has broad, empty boulevards that wind through the countryside, seemingly for miles.
At the end of one of those thoroughfares sits a forlorn little park, bordered on one side by a gravel road that disappears into the trees and on the other by a wooded hill. A wrought iron fence runs around the perimeter. Inside the garden are well-kept walkways, benches and beds of flowers. Museum-quality signs elaborate upon slavery themes: the auction block, runaways, abolitionists and the like. There are a number of elaborate African-inspired wood carvings. And in the center of the park, a bigger-than-life statue of a slave reaches to the sky, his shackles shattered. “Hallelujah,” reads the title.
The “Spirit of Freedom” park is carefully tended. There was freshly laid mulch when my mother and I visited a week ago. But not another soul was there. The only sound was the hum of cars speeding along the Interstate on the far side of the hill.
The U.S. National Slavery Museum was launched with great fanfare in 2006. Former Virginia Gov. (and now Richmond Mayor) L. Douglas Wilder had made a personal commitment to erect a museum that would tell the story of American slavery. Entertainment superstars Bill Cosby and Ben Vereen lent their prestigious names to the campaign. Plans called for building 100,000 square feet of exhibition space and erecting a library and archives to store artifacts and aid the study of America’s peculiar institution.
The Silver Companies helped kick off a $200 million fund-raising campaign by donating a 38-acre site overlooking the Rappahannock River. While no one questions the Silvers’ philanthropic motives — CEO Larry D. Silver sits on the museum board — clearly the company stands to benefit commercially from the project’s success. In its launch publicity, the museum boldly projected 450,000 visitors annually in its first years of operation and one million as it developed a national reputation. An attraction of that magnitude would create critical mass for the Celebrate Virginia development.
But the museum has yet to materialize. Wilder, the rainmaker, became embroiled in Richmond city politics, while another museum competed for financial support: The proposed $500 million National Museum of Africa.  American History and Culture is slated to open in 2015 as part of the prestigious Smithsonian Museum complex in Washington, D.C. No one is sure if the Virginia museum will ever be built. Honaker doesn’t have much to say about it. “It’s not moving as fast as we’d like to see. I don’t have a lot of information on that.”
The major achievement of Celebrate Virginia to date has been attracting the Fredericksburg Expo & Conference Center, which opened in January 2006, and three conference hotels nearby. (A fourth is said to be in the works.) The state-of-the-art facility sells itself as a meeting place that Fredericksburg area groups can “call their own.” Currently on its list of events are two high school proms, a Marine Corps healthy lifestyle expo, a Harley riders convention, and “Bustin’ Out of the Cave,” a martial arts cage fighting event presented by Barbarian Fight Club. But even the conference center is having trouble.
Late last year, the public learned that the Expo Center was encountering financial difficulties. In a City Council meeting, it was revealed that the Silver Companies were subsidizing the facility to the tune of $140,000 a year. One reason the Expo Center was struggling was that other major tourism venues anticipated for Celebrate Virginia — the World Street retail mall and the Rappahannock Ridge Entertainment District — had never came to fruition. Contending that the facility generated $700,000 annually in direct and indirect tax revenues, Silver Cos. asked the city to help keep the enterprise afloat. Several members responded they did not believe it to be the responsibility of the city to make up for private-sector failures, and the council tabled the issue.
The Silver Cos. had rolled out its World Street project with great fanfare in 2006. The idea was to combine restaurants and markets featuring cuisine and goods from around the world, all under one roof. The company saw World Street as a unique retail concept that, like the massive Potomac Mills mall off I-95 in Prince William County, would draw visitors from hundreds of miles away. Plans called for a 700,000-square-foot facility with a grand hall, mezzanine, showroom and performing arts center. Honaker says his company sank $6 million into World Street before pulling the plug. It turns out that “the logistics were horrendous,” he explains, and after 9/11, it was hard to get visas for the merchants. “We decided not to move forward.”
The music venue also met with disappointment. Silver Cos. had recruited John Elkington, the CEO of Performa Entertainment, to develop a musical venue in Celebrate Virginia. Elkington is the man widely credited with restoring the historic Beale Street district in Memphis, which bills itself as the place where the musical genre of the blues was born. He spearheaded revitalization by developing a musical entertainment theme through a careful selection of tenants, and he leveraged his success there into a national business. Plans in Fredericksburg called for building a 168,000-square foot entertainment, retail and restaurant district focusing on Virginia’s history, music and culture. Although the project was scheduled to open in 2008, Elkington never closed on the 25 acres. Press reports cite legal and financial difficulties.
Adding to its litany of woes, the Silver Cos. put 440 acres of Rappahannock riverfront under conservation easement. The land was zoned commercial, explains Honaker, “but it was land that the river conservation groups had urged us to protect.” The easements also qualified for roughly $28 million in state tax credits. The Silver Cos. sold the credits it couldn’t use at a discount to private investors who could use them. But last year, the state tax department disputed the credits. An attorney representing some 340 investors then filed suit against the state, leaving the situation in confusion and turmoil.
After a string of expensive setbacks and disappointments, Silver Cos. finds itself saddled with a large tract of money-draining real estate. Not only does it pay a significant property tax bill, it carries the burden of supporting debt on millions of dollars of road and utility improvements. The company is now taking on projects that represent a major departure from the original vision. The Fredericksburg Board of Realtors and the Virginia Credit Union have erected office buildings in the tourism zone. Honaker describes them as “benign, not hurting anything.”
More controversial is a proposal to build a Wegmans mega-grocery store on the property. According to Economic Development Director Kevin Gullette, if Wegmans generates $300,000 or more per year in sales taxes, the city will waive the business-license tax, an incentive worth about $165,000 a year. Although there are plenty of grocery stores in the Fredericksburg area, Gullette defends the subsidy on the grounds that Wegmans is a destination that draws visitors from dozens of miles away. (With Wegmans scheduled to open a store in Prince William County in June, however, it’s not likely that the Fredericksburg store’s market territory will reach much beyond neighboring Stafford County.) Honaker likewise contends that the store will draw from a wide radius. But even he concedes, “Candidly, it’s not a perfect fit” for the tourism zone.
To all appearances, the tourism zone seems to be unraveling. But Honaker insists that Silver Cos. is in it for the long run. “Yes, this is challenging,” he says. “But this is not an easy business. You have to be willing to tough it out.”
When the Silver Cos. brought the Kalahari proposal to Fredericksburg City Council last year, it represented a way out of the woods not only for the developer but for the city. The national economic slowdown was pinching city revenues. City Council had already passed a 2008 budget that drew $3.8 million from the city’s cash reserves, and fiscal pressure was building. In February, City Council went public with news that the city faced an additional $3 million revenue shortfall.
The Kalahari development won’t solve the short-term cash crunch, but the prospect of millions of dollars in new revenue generated a lot of excitement. Jumping all over the project, Fredericksburg officials dispatched departmental managers to Sandusky to interview their governmental counterparts on the impact of the Kalahari waterpark there.
Nelson, though not exactly a disinterested party, credits city officials for their diligence. When Fredericksburg City Council sent a delegation to the Ohio city, says the Kalahari CEO, he called the manager of the Sandusky water department to invite him to attend the meeting. “He said there wasn’t anything new he could tell them,” Nelson recalls. “He’d talked to the [the Fredericksburg water manager] 16 times. ‘There’s nothing more for me to talk about,’ he said.”
Although City Council did its homework, Nelson was in a strong negotiating position. On the one hand, Fredericksburg made a superior location to Williamsburg for an indoor waterpark. Forty-five million people live within a four-hour drive radius of Fredericksburg. And the location only an hour from Washington, D.C., which pulls in 25 million visitors a year, was a major plus. As Silver Cos. official Scott Little had pitched it, a stay at Kalahari in Fredericksburg would combine the educational attractions of the Washington area with the watery fun of an indoor waterpark. Not only that but the nation’s capital was accessible by train ride on the Virginia Railway Express. “There are many strengths to Fredericksburg,” says Little. “Todd Nelson could see that.”
On the other had, Nelson had flexibility as to where he could locate. “We had other sites in other jurisdictions where we could have put [Nelson’s] project,” Honaker says. “In some cases it would have been more efficient” to do so.
The reality of the marketplace, says Nelson, is that local governments routinely make huge concessions to attract tax generators like Kalahari. “Most cities would pay an up-front fee of $5 to $10 million dollars, give away land, and give tax incentives on top of that,” he claims.
“They’ve got people knocking on the door and bugging them to death,” says Honaker, who speaks from experience as one who came knocking. “Incentives are the price of playing poker.”

Layout of the Kalahari project.

 

Mayor Tomzak and Vice Mayor Karry Devine were the only two council members permitted to negotiate directly with Nelson. Permitting any more in the room would have constituted a quorum, triggering the need to treat the discussions as a public meeting. Although she did not participate directly in the talks, Girvan did make the trip to Sandusky and was privy to much of went on. The talks, she says, got intense.


Girvan believes that Tomzak, whom she is running against for mayor, was bullied by Nelson’s aggressive negotiating tactics. “I’ve been told stories of the Kalahari owner losing his temper, breaking pens, in the negotiating room,” she says. If Nelson had a business plan for the project, he did not reveal it. He would not reveal his company’s financials to the city. “He refused. He was angry and defensive and explosive. He slammed his fists on the table and said, ‘This insanity needs to stop!'” (Nelson did subsequently share financial data on a confidential basis with a consultant hired by the city. He also says, “I do not break pens and slam fists.”)


Tomzak did not respond to requests by Bacon’s Rebellion for an interview; neither did did Council ally Matthew Kelly, an ardent defender of the Kalahari deal. (However, Kelly did post an extended defense of the project in the Bacon’s Rebellion blog here, seventh comment from the top.)


But Gullette, the city’s economic development director, believes the deal works for both sides. The city does waive significant fees that developers normally pay to process rezoning requests, but that’s not cash out of the city treasury. Fredericksburg is on the hook for $1.6 million in water-sewer connections, which it is obligated to pay back over 10 years. Otherwise, says Gullette, the city doesn’t pay a dime unless the project generates tax revenues.


Out of the roughly $6 million a year in anticipated local tax revenues, the city will receive more than $3 million. The balance, less than $3 million, will be reimbursed to Kalahari. That concession will significantly improve Kalahari’s cash flow and the bankability of the project. At the same time, from the city’s perspective, the $3 million in revenue to the city is almost all profit. Outside the water-sewer service, city obligations to the development are minimal. Kalahari will provide its own security, so there will be little added burden to law enforcement. The project will accelerate the planned construction of a $7 million firehouse, Gullette concedes, but Silver Cos. has proffered half the cost, and the facility would have had to be built eventually anyway.


Even the traffic impact will be modest. Most visitors will enter Kalahari by exiting the Rt. 3 interchange and driving through the Central Park retail area. Although Rt. 3 has an “F” level of service during rush hour, Kalahari won’t add much to the strain, contends Chris Hornung, vice president of planning and engineering for Silver Cos. “It’s not a peak demand situation. People will be coming and going throughout the day.” Adds Honaker: “Kalahari won’t generate as many trips a day as a Wal*Mart or Lowes, or even as much as a WaWa.”
Kalahari would have a positive fiscal impact over and above that $3 million benefit, Gullette contends. Tourists spend a lot of money shopping, he says. Visitors to the waterpark would generate retail sales and tax revenues patronizing businesses in Central Park or downtown Fredericksburg. Additionally, Kalahari plans to take over operation, either by outright sale or lease, of the ailing Expo. Increased convention and hotel traffic will translate into even more tax revenue.


Gullette concedes that the project is controversial. But, he says, “I try to focus on the project, not the person. Stay objective, look at the numbers, look at the impact. Look at what the project means for the city, weigh the positives and the impacts.”


Opponents of the project don’t dispute that Kalahari could be a big money maker for the city — if it gets built. But the Silver Cos. has built up hopes for several other projects only to see them dashed. Girvan makes three further points. First, the city could have driven a harder bargain with Kalahari and Silver Cos. Second, it’s not clear if the subsidies will be extended to the Expo center if Kalahari takes it over, as has been discussed. Third, the city is on the hook for $3.5 million in up-front expenses — including $1.6 million in cash for water-sewer connections — if Nelson fails to line up financing for his project.


On the first point, the deal calls for the Silver Cos. to sell 49 acres of land to Kalahari. Neither Kalahari nor Silver Cos. will disclose the sales price, but Honaker does say that Kalahari is paying less than Silver Cos. could get from a conventional retailer. “We’re selling it for 70 percent less per acre compared to what we sold land for in Central Park,” says Honaker. “We’re committed to making this a tourism destination. We think Kalahari is such an opportunity, we’re willing to start the ball rolling in the right direction.”


“They definitely discounted the land to me,” Nelson confirms. Even so, he adds, “We’re not accustomed to paying that price for land. But I understand that land is more expensive on the East Coast.”


Even though the Silver Cos. discounted the land, it still had room to cut the price even more. As any developer knows, the challenge to closing a real estate transaction is finding ways to reduce the up-front expense of the deal. By not discounting the land price even steeper, it can be argued, the Silver Cos. is keeping cash that the city has to make up for. To make the deal work, Silver Cos. is instead asking the city to relinquish many millions of dollars in tax revenues, via incentives, over the next 20 years.


On the second point, Girvan says she can’t get answers to her questions on what will happen if Kalahari takes over the Expo Center. The facility generates a couple of hundred thousand dollars a year in direct taxes to the city (plus indirect taxes paid when convention goers patronize nearby stores and restaurants). Because the Expo is located in the special tax district set up to administer the tax incentives, a mechanism exists to rebate 47.5 percent of its tax revenues back to Kalahari. She fears that city officials “rolled the Expo Center into the Kalahari deal at the 11th hour.” And that could lead to a loss of city revenue not counted in the normal accounting of the project.


On the third point, Girvan questions if Kalahari has the financial wherewithal to pull the project off in an economic climate in which banks are clamping down on real estate lending. The credit squeeze is affecting the waterpark industry, as Great Wolf CEO John Emergy alluded to in a recent financial report: “We have seen less well-capitalized competitors forced to the sidelines because they do not have the proven operating history and balance sheet strength to provide the necessary equity contribution for large-scale indoor waterpark resorts.”


Nelson professes no concern. He started out in the bar business in Wisconsin Dells. He acquired the bar next door, and then the hotel next door after that. In 1997, he built an indoor waterpark on the property, sold it, and then, looking for something bigger and different, built what was then the biggest indoor waterpark in the world in 2000. He’s accustomed to taking measured risks. “I’ll bet we were turned down by 200 banks” for the first project, he says, but he eventually found someone to bankroll him. Today, he says, the company is financially stronger than it was then.


Nelson refused to provide any financial information to Bacon’s Rebellion, however. I asked him if numbers published by Dun & Bradstreet — that Kalahari Development generated $44.6 million in the fiscal year ending June 2007 — were accurate. He said they were not. I asked if the D&B number for Kalahari’s net worth, negative $17.3 million, was accurate. He said that it was not. “We don’t reply to D&B,” he said. “They just try to pick up whatever they think they can. It’s very substantially inaccurate.”


Nelson says he plans to put $20 million into the project and to raise the rest of the equity by pre-selling 75 percent of the condominium units planned for the resort. According to sales material provided by the company, the asking price for new “Kalahari Kondos” in Sandusky runs around $519,000 per unit. Kalahari rents out the condos to resort guests, pocketing 45 percent and giving the owner 55 percent. Last year, according to company pro formas, the average unit generated $92,000 in revenue, generating roughly $50,000 in income for the owners to meet their debt service.


That sounds good, I said to Nelson when I interviewed him, but the condominium market has tanked since then. Tens of thousands of units are going unsold in Florida. What makes him think that Fredericksburg condos would fare any better? Nelson’s response: “Anybody who went to Florida and bought a condo that was already overpriced by 200 percent, and banked on appreciation … deserves everything they got. That’s stupid. If your condo doesn’t cash flow, don’t plan on it appreciating. … Our condos financially work for people. We don’t have a big issue with selling these.”


His big concern with the project is not selling the condos, Nelson says, but escalating construction costs. The final project price tag will be much bigger than the $200 million originally announced. One reason is inflation in the construction sector, which drives up the cost of steel and other raw materials. The other is that he has increased the scope of the project: “Our waterpark is going to be twice the size we announced,” he says. “We need to make a statement. We need to come out of the gate with a gorgeous, 200,000-square-foot waterpark.”


While financial aspects of the deal may be troubling to some, that’s not what really gets people riled up. The very idea of building Kalahari on hallowed ground seems, well, un-Virginian. It’s one thing to build an African- themed waterpark in an empty field in Wisconsin or a down-and-out industrial city in Ohio, but it’s quite another to build one in a city like Fredericksburg with so much history.


Gullette, the economic development director, says that Williamsburg coexists with nearby Water Country USA and the Great Wolf Lodge very comfortably. No one thinks any the less of Colonial Williamsburg for all the water rides nearby. In fact, the cluster of attractions makes the region a stronger tourist destination than it would be if Colonial Williamsburg had to market the region all alone. If Kalahari succeeds in bringing more visitors to Fredericksburg, he argues, more people will visit the city’s historical sites than the city could attract on its own.


Some people don’t buy that logic. Foes raise two broad objections. First, does a region where unemployment is running at less than four percent really need 800 to 1,000 low-wage tourism jobs? More broadly, does a waterpark point the way to prosperity in a knowledge-intensive economy? Second, they charge, marketing for the waterpark resort will overwhelm the meager budget for promoting the city’s history. Inevitably, outsiders will come to associate Fredericksburg with waterslides, not its colonial and Civil War heritage.
Nelson bristles at the idea that the waterpark jobs are low paying. Jobs at his Midwest resorts range from $8 an hour to $250,000 a year. His facilities are organized around some 30 to 40 departments, each of which employs a highly compensated manager. His resorts employ several professional, salaried chefs and 10-person sales teams. “In Wisconsin Dells,” he says, “we have 62 salaried positions.”


Besides, Nelson adds, what’s so bad about the hourly jobs? “There’s nothing wrong with a waitress job, a lifeguard job. We train them with skills. These kids are trained in first aid. They take EMT classes. There’s lots of real good jobs here.”


Girvan wonders where the employees will come from. Pools in the Fredericksburg area can’t keep fully staffed with lifeguards as it is. She’s worried that Kalahari will have to recruit labor from outside the region, bringing in low-wage workers who require “workforce” housing that doesn’t exist along with uninsured patients who will strain the already over-burdened health care system. “How many of his employees are full time, part time and seasonal?” she asks. “How many would get health care benefits?” Nelson won’t say, she contends.


There’s an even bigger question, says Girvan: What does Fredericksburg want to be when it grows up? What vision does the region have for its economic future?
Girvan says that City Council is being seduced by the lure of the easy answer, the quick buck. Expanding the tax base with a project like Kalahari requires far less effort than implementing good spending controls, or planning and investing for the long-term health of the community. Fredericksburg is located on the edge of the Washington region, with its dynamic technology sector. “We’ve got good, educated talent” that commutes 50 miles up the Interstate every day to work for those companies. Does a waterpark contribute to the kind of community that will induce those companies to relocate in Fredericksburg? The city needs to encourage infill and redevelopment around the historic downtown and Mary Washington University, she says, not push growth beyond the Interstate.


A Kalahari can be built anywhere in the country. But nobody’s building any more historic Fredericksburgs, she says. “This is the genuine article – other communities are trying to recreate what we have.”


What will people see if the waterpark gets built? Kalahari’s 10-story structures will be the tallest in Fredericksburg. The city’s performance agreement will allow Kalahari to build an 18-foot-high electronic billboard right on the Interstate. “I’m worried about this project eclipsing what Fredericksburg truly is, a national historic center,” she says. “We were joking the other day, what would George Washington say? [Mayor] Tomzak said that Kalahari would put Fredericksburg on the map…. That’s exactly what worries me.”

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