After years spent sailing choppy financial waters that included a trip to bankruptcy court, Wild River Country in North Little Rock looks to right itself with new owners who promise to pump money into the 28-year-old water park.
Aquapark Holdings LLC of North Little Rock, which is owned by Mort Fishman of Palm Beach Garden, Fla., and Michael Slattery of Toronto, in November bought Wild River from Canadian Hugh Hall’s Halcyon Attractions of Arkansas LLC. Real estate records indicate the purchase price was at least $5.4 million.
“When guests come to the park, they’re going to see immediately things we’ve done,” said Chris Shillcutt, vice president of operations for Aquapark. “All of our slides are going to be new. They’re going to be completely refurbished.”
At least $1 million will be spent on upgrades at the 29.4-acre water park for the upcoming season, which runs May 18 until Labor Day, said Shillcutt, 49, who worked as a lifeguard at the park when it first opened.
The ownership move comes at the right time for Wild River. Traffic at North American water parks reached an estimated 85 million people in 2012, which was up 3.66 percent from 2011, according to the World Waterpark Association. In 2010, 79 million people attended a water park, which includes all municipal and private water parks.
“With the increased popularity of staycations, long weekends and family getaways and get-togethers, waterpark demand continues to grow,” David J. Sangree, president of Hotel & Leisure Advisors of Cleveland wrote in his report, “Waterpark Resorts Supply & Demand 2013 Update.”
It is unclear how many visitors Wild River had in recent years, Shillcutt said, but the number appears to have been declining. Food and nonalcoholic sales fell 8.4 percent to $515,584 between May and August 2012 compared with the same period in 2011, according to records at the North Little Rock Advertising & Promotion Commission.
After arriving at the park in January, Shillcutt scratched his head over some of the decisions made by the former managers, Reve Management LLC of Little Rock. One example: It didn’t repair the water park’s electronic sign, which is visible from Interstate 430.
“I mean, that’s a no-brainer” to get it fixed, Shillcutt said. “Most business people would not operate that way.”
Reve Management had managed the park since 2010, said Tina Hatcher, a public relations agent in Florida who is working for Aquapark.
“The previous management company did not have any experience in working with or operating other water parks, nor did they have a financial incentive to make the necessary investments required to maintain and upgrade the park,” she said in a January email to Arkansas Business.
Hall, the previous owner, disagreed and said he was happy with the management. “I was fine with Reve Management,” Hall said last week. “I dispute the comment that they were bad managers.”
Shillcutt said it appeared that profits weren’t reinvested in the park. “It seemed like to me they were treading water,” he said.
When Halcyon bought the park in 1999, Hall pledged $1 million in capital improvements during the next 18 months. Hall also said that he would “put the action back in attraction.”
But within a few years, financial troubles had hit the park. One of its low points came in January 2005, when Wild River became the first business in Arkansas to be shut down by the state Department of Finance & Administration for nonpayment of sales taxes. Wild River owed the state $170,000 in sales taxes it had collected from customers but didn’t hand over to the state between July and September 2004.
Wild River reopened two weeks after it was closed by the state.
“We intend to make sure all our bills are paid,” Hall told Arkansas Business in 2005. “We’ve had a few bumps. … I think everybody should settle down and relax.”
The bills weren’t paid, however, and in November 2005, Halcyon Attractions filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy reorganization and listed $4.3 million in debts and $3.96 million in assets.
The biggest creditor was Community Bank of Cabot, which is now Centennial Bank. It was owed $3.4 million. Wild River’s bankruptcy filing halted Community Bank’s foreclosure against the park.
It looked like the 2006 season was showing signs of life for Wild River. Bankruptcy filings showed the park had revenue of $2.46 million between May and August 2006 and a net income of $737,299.
In October 2006, Wild River received a $1.9 million loan from Merk Mortgages Inc. of Canada, led by Slattery, the Canadian businessman who is now a co-owner of the park. Halcyon paid Community Bank $400,000, which reduced its financial exposure with Halcyon to $2.6 million in the form of a new three-year mortgage. Hall also agreed to personally guarantee new funding agreements.
But the good times didn’t last long. By 2008, collection lawsuits started rolling in again.
Wild River’s workers’ compensation insurance carrier, Union Insurance Co., sued in 2008 to collect the relatively small amount of $16,224 for a premium that dated back to 2004. That case settled out of court in September 2008, but more financial trouble was on its way.
In November 2008, Community Bank filed a collection lawsuit against Halcyon, charging it defaulted on its loan, which stood at $2.5 million.
Merk Mortgages also got involved in the lawsuit and said Halcyon also defaulted on its loan. Merk said it was owed $2.2 million in November 2008. That case was settled out of court in January 2010.
In June 2011, Entergy Arkansas Inc. sued Halcyon for failing to pay its $38,133 electric bill. The amount was paid and the lawsuit was dismissed the following month.
“Over the last few years the park has been getting rundown and neglected,” said Fishman, a CPA and business investor who is one of the new owners from Florida.
Slattery, the businessman from Canada, “had lent them money years ago for that park, and as they grew, they just decided that paying the mortgage wasn’t their first goal.
“So we decided that rather than foreclose on [Hall], we bought him out and gave him a little money to go away,” Fishman said.
Hall declined to comment on the transaction.
One of Fishman’s first moves was to hire Shillcutt, a 22-year veteran of the water park industry. “His role in the industry has been to take nonperforming parks and make them successful,” Fishman said.
Shillcutt’s plans include adding revenue by renting the park to companies during the offseason for team-building or challenge courses.
And in the next three to five years, Wild River plans to expand the water area for children, a project that could cost $2 million, Shillcutt said. Also during that time, Shillcutt wants to add a mat racer ride that could cost $1 million.
“Most water parks need to add a new ride every one to two years,” Sangree, of Hotel & Leisure Advisors, said in an interview with Arkansas Business. Customers need to think that something will change at the water park in order for them to return season after season, he said.
Wild River Country also will be more visible in the community in an attempt to generate more revenue, Shillcutt said. A contest to name the Wild River Country mascot is under way, he said, and the mascot will be sent into the community for events.
“We’re going to be a safe and family-friendly environment, [and] we’re going to be a community leader,” he said. “We’re not just a business here to make money.”
The owners asked Shillcutt if the name should be changed.
“No, everyone knows us as Wild River Country,” he said. “So now we want to come in and be known as the new Wild River Country.”