Up until last Thursday, April 29, Bruce Holland had been pushing the University Town Center development at Glen Carbon, Illinois, in the St. Louis Metro-East area. After opposition to the use of STAR bonds, the local state Rep. Tom Holbrook, dropped legislation that would create the state incentives.
At some point last week Southern Illinois lawmakers state Rep. John Bradley, D-Marion, and state Sen. Gary Forby, D-Benton, jumped on board. After a rash of meetings with the lawmakers, area mayors and economic development officials, Holland announced plans for the Marion project.
The clock though is ticking. House Speaker Michael Madigan wants to adjourn at the end of this week.
So what's the history on Legoland and the Midwest?
Four years ago Nick Varney, CEO of Merlin Entertainments Group, announced that his company was "actively engaged" in finding partners and a location for a fifth Legoland theme park. They already operated three in Europe and one in North America at Carlsbad, California.
The Theme Park Insider reported the news on Jan. 19, 2006, under a headlined time frame of "3 to 5 years":
Varney said that the company's goal is to develop its Legoland parks as "mini Disney Worlds," destination resorts attracting visitors over several days, rather than just destinations for local day-trippers. As a result, Varney suggested that Merlin might build new installations of its SeaLife and Dungeon amusements next to Legolands, as well as working with local governments and developers to encourage more tourist development around the parks.
Important for Marion and Southern Illinois is the following quote.
"We have three parks in Europe. Looking to the future, in the blue sky, I could see three parks in North America, too. With a Legoland here in Southern California, it does not take a genius to see the Midwest and the East Coast as potential new sites," Varney said.
Merlin Entertainment found its East Coast location at Winter Haven, Florida last year when it acquired the legendary Cypress Gardens site.
In the Midwest, they first looked at Kansas City before targeting the St. Louis region.
In June 2007, the city council at Columbia, Illinois, learned that St. Louis developer G. J. Crewe, which they had been working with since 2004 to develop the Columbia Crossings site, had landed the interest of Merlin to locate a Legoland as part of the proposed 2,000 acre development. Amazingly, the city backed out of the plan.
Skip forward a couple of years with a new developer, Holland, this time, and the idea of a suburban St. Louis Legoland resurfaces at Glen Carbon, Illinois, on the northeast side of the MetroEast.
Holland was able to get work with his local lawmakers to get the STAR bonds incentive legislation through the General Assembly in 2009, but Gov. Pat Quinn vetoed the bill with a change that only half of the state sales tax increment could be used rather than all of it.
Plans were to address that this year, but opposition grew from other MetroEast mayors over the retail development which they feared would threatened their own retail areas. That opposition killed the Glen Carbon proposal last week.
While Legoland officials have officially "downplayed" an Illinois location, company officials did approach Quinn last October while he visited Copenhagen to lobby the International Olympic Committee in support of Chicago's bid for the 2016 Olympics. For those who don't know, Lego is based in Denmark.
Holland probably didn't mention the park because he was still trying to sell Merlin Entertainment on Southern Illinois. Still the possibilities are tempting for area tourism. Holbrook's legislation provides an idea of the minimum investment on a theme park needed to qualify for the bonds - $100 million. That's an investment we can take to the bank.
On a lighter side, here's something we probably won't see in a Land of Lincoln Legoland.
NOTE: Also posted at the Southern Illinois Tourism News blog.