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Sun, Nov. 29

Renaissance theme park dream still alive in Williams

WILLIAMS, Ariz. - Amid the talk circulating about a possible theme park coming to Williams, a core group of local residents is working to bring a different attraction to town - a renaissance park.

Williams resident Mark Worden has dreamed of bringing the Grand Canyon Renaissance Experience to town since 2002.

The project is separate from the newly formed theme park district in Williams, and Worden hopes work can start on his attraction when the city's water crisis is resolved.

Initial plans for the renaissance park include a castle with a castle yard, a feast hall, a pub with a stage, a reception area for events, a field of honor, a maze and more. The park would be built on a piece of land along the Interstate 40 corridor, although the specific land in question is not public yet.

"You want the visibility," Worden said of the location. "If you have a castle you want people to see it."

The programming at the renaissance park would feature demonstrations of swordsmanship and archery, living history, stage shows, a knight's academy, a shopping area, a comedy joust and more.

"We're the only ones in the country that have (the comedy joust), so it's definitely a selling point for our fair," Worden said. "We put on a really good show."

According to Worden, his group is now in the investment stage of the project, and one investment group is interested in putting $7 million to $11 million toward the park.

If and when Worden finalizes plans with investors, he'll still face another hurdle in building his attraction - water. With the city's level four water restrictions in place, officials are not issuing any building permits unless the project falls under one of three exceptions: if the council has already granted a water allocation and the impact fees have already been paid, if the construction will not have any new fixture units connected to the city's potable water supply, and if the permit application was submitted and in process before the city implemented level four water restrictions.

However, the water issue isn't a deal breaker for Worden and he isn't considering any other locations for his attraction.

"We've done this fair a lot of different places," he said. "We're not afraid of the work. We just think this is the right place for it."

A four-member board of directors including Worden, Linda Cooper, and Carl and Barbara Billharz has been meeting weekly to plan for development of the park. In addition, several volunteers are helping with the project.

Worden estimates the attraction will take a year to build. Initial plans call for the renaissance park to be open for spring break, throughout summer season, during the fall for a harvest festival and possibly a haunted castle, and for a winter holiday event. Eventually Worden hopes the attraction would remain open for 10 months out of the year, with closures in January and February for maintenance and expansion.

Worden projects that his park will attract between 50,000 and 100,000 people in its first year. However, he called those estimates conservative since the Arizona Renaissance Festival near Apache Junction attracts about 260,000 people over eight weekends.

Besides bringing in more visitors, Worden said the park would create jobs for at least 40 people.

"As Williams grows, it allows an economic base for us not to become the bedroom community of Flagstaff we currently are," Worden said. "Ultimately people will work here and the bedroom communities will be the satellite communities of Williams. This will create more of a permanent economic base for our town."

Al Richmond, the CEO of the Arizona State Railroad Museum that is included in the recently formed Williams theme park district, agreed that a renaissance park would contribute to Williams' tourism economy.

"All of these venues working together are really going to benefit the community at large, whether it be the theme park or the museum, whether it be Mark's project and or Bearizona and the Grand Canyon Railway," he said. "All of these things...are going to create what we've been working so hard for-creating a destination. All of these things are just going to work together very nicely to create revenues and jobs for the city and the county and the state."

History of the renaissance in Williams

Worden has organized weekend renaissance fairs in northern Arizona since 2002. Since then, he's been looking for a permanent location for his events.

Originally he hoped to use Williams' Buckskinner Park for the fair, but fire danger because of a drought made the location unusable. The first event ended up taking place in Williams on the Gonzales Lake property, which is now the larger portion of land included in the city's theme park district.

"It was so dusty, it was so windy," Worden said. "In spite of the dust, our exit polling said 93 percent of the people that were there just loved it, and that was our first year."

Although Worden considered the fair successful, his group decided to relocate to Flagstaff the next year since they didn't have a permanent site in Williams. The so-called "Renaissance in the Pines" fair took place at Fort Tuthill for about seven years before moving to the El Nathan Campground at the base of Mt. Elden.

During that time, Worden kept searching for a permanent location for his attraction.

After signing a contract in 2004, the renaissance park was initially included as 250 acres of a 1,000-acre theme park planned for Williams at the time that was spearheaded by the late Mike Morgan, according to Worden.

"When Mike passed away, it was like all of the air getting let out of a balloon," Worden said.

Although those early theme park plans fizzled out, Worden's group continued to plan their renaissance fairs. He's taken a break from planning the weekend events for the past few years to concentrate on developing plans for his park, but Worden's past fairs have attracted between 1,000 and 5,000 people.

"We have been here all along," he said. "We've stuck with it. We've stayed with our idea. We're building it now ourselves and now we have our own investors so it's kind of a different game."

After the initial theme park plans dissolved, Worden considered putting his attraction on a portion of land south of the Garland Prairie exit that Bearizona CEO Sean Casey owns. However, the new plans call for the group to buy its own land for the attraction elsewhere.

Although the plans for the Grand Canyon Renaissance Experience have changed several times over the years, Worden is not deterred.

"It's a dream," he said. "Dreams take time. There's been a few interruptions, obviously, but we're not afraid. We keep working. We're diligent."

More information about getting involved with the Grand Canyon Renaissance Experience is available from Worden at (928) 380-5470.

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