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Nelson: $20M expansion at busy Dells resort means 65 new jobs this month

By Brian E. Clark

MADISON -- The nation's economy may be in the tank, but business at the Kalahari Resort in the Wisconsin Dells and its counterpart in Sandusky, Ohio remains solid.

That’s the word from Todd Nelson, owner and president of the African-themed Kalahari water parks. The Ohio property gets 7 million visitors a year, more than twice as many as the Dells resort.

Business is so good, in fact, that the Dells’ Kalahari will open a 108,000-square-foot entertainment “family fun” center on Dec. 19 and hire 65 workers to staff it. With the new employees, the total workforce will rise to 1,100.

The project cost $20 million to build, he said.
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The main downside to the recession, said a frustrated Nelson, is that the accompanying credit crunch is hindering plans to build a third resort in Fredericksburg, Virginia.

“Knock on wood, existing business is very strong,” said Nelson, who opened the Dells Kalahari in 2000. The Ohio facility opened in 2005.

“In fact, we find that the harder the economic times, the better we do,” often drawing the same families back three or four times a year, he said.

Unlike more expensive vacations that require flying to Florida, the Rockies or California, Nelson said many Midwestern families are willing to drive several hundred miles on a tank of gas and stay several nights for a mini-vacation in these trying times.

Still, Nelson knows he needs to give travelers incentives to go to the Kalahari resorts.

“What we are doing is adding value,” he said. “What I mean by that is you get your guest room and breakfast for four and you might also get game-room tokens and movie passes.”

With the opening of the new, two-level entertainment center – which will have 24 bowling lanes, pool tables, dart boards, a DJ area, a Ferris wheel, a go-kart track, a ropes course, a carousel, birthday party rooms, golf simulators, a rock-climbing wall, a laser tag area, a “princess spa” and other attractions -- he said the resort will be able to offer additional packages.

Nelson said the project started when the frost left the ground in the spring and is now in its final phases. Over the course of construction, he said more than 500 people worked on the entertainment center.

Nelson said the resort has 100,000 square feet of meeting space and that roughly 45 percent of its business comes from meetings.

“That makes a lot of sense for us because when the kids are in school, there is really no one around,” he said. “So it’s a match made in heaven to have a conference center with an indoor waterpark. And now with the entertainment center, that’s a real bonus.”

Nelson said he remains optimistic that the Virginia Kalahari will be up and running in 2010 -- if he can get the financing.

“This bank freeze-up has not helped things at all,” he said. “It’s not affecting us up in the Dells, but it is certainly affecting our Virginia resort. We are ready to kick it off, but we need money.

“With Lehman Brothers going down and Citi having problems. ... it’s just real hard to get money right now to do a project like that,” he said.

Nelson said he has "absolutely no idea” when the economy will rebound.

“But I am confident that we will get our money for Virginia at some point in 2009 and I am hoping we will get it by midsummer so I can still make my Christmas 2010 opening date,” he said.

“We’ve got to get through the presidential change and the holidays and see what is going to happen,” he said.

He called the more than two-month transition period until president-elect Barack Obama takes office “very frustrating.”

“We’ll just use this time to make sure we are all set and we have all the right pieces in place,” he said. “It’s really out of our control, so we just have to make the best of it.”

On another note, Nelson said the Dells has bounced back from flooding earlier this year with the completed reconstruction of Lake Delton and Highway A. He praised Tom Diehl for his work spearheading the effort.

“It’s been the most amazing thing to look at that lake drained June 8th and that’s opening up ... less than six months later,” he said. “They filled that huge gorge that was blown out, rebuilt the dam, rebuilt the boat ramp, did a full fish-restocking program and will be refilling the lake in a week.”

He said Dells businesses and residents are optimistic about 2009.

“We certainly are, especially with a new amenity like our indoor theme park,” he said.

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