At a packed meeting last week, Derby City Council dipped its first toe into Field Station: Dinosaurs, which could bring walking animatronic dinosaurs and a regional museum into the city limits.
The project would cost an estimated $39 million and be funded through STAR bonds, which focus on bringing tourism to the state. If the park goes through, it would likely open in 2017 near the northwest corner of Rock Road and Patriot Avenue.
During the meeting Guy Gsell, executive producer of Field Station: Dinosaurs, gave a presentation showing off some of his work at the New Jersey park he runs.
The presentation featured a video story on the park from the Huffington Post and a video of the “dinosaur troubadour” at a New York Met’s baseball game.
“My passion is to teach kids,” he said. “What we do is we teach kids about the mystery and adventure of science … think of it as Indiana Jones. We show them the books, the libraries and schools … but we also show them adventure out in the field.”
After showing what he has done, Gsell presented what he could be bringing to Derby. New features would include a second-of-its-kind dome with a ropes course inside. The only dome like it in the world is in London, Gsell said.
The Derby location would also get things New Jersey doesn’t have, such as a miniature golf course and a regional museum featuring dinosaurs that were in the area – even though much of Kansas was underwater at the time of dinosaurs.
“It was only half underwater, which is very cool because water is what you need to create a fossil,” Gsell said. “That amazing amount of life – the diversity of what was going on here when that western inland seaway that existed was pretty remarkable.”
Rick Worner, a Kansas investment banker, said he always had a dream of bringing dinosaurs to Kansas. That dream became a lot clearer when he visited Gsell’s attraction.
“As I traveled over the United States, and frankly over the world, I’ve been fortunate enough to see a number of dinosaur parks,” he said. “Of all the dinosaur park operators I’ve met – of all the facilities I’ve visited – this is the premier operator.”
Worner said tourism is the cheapest form of economic development because you’re causing others from outside the state to come in and spend their money in Kansas – and in Derby.
But Gsell said he needed some convincing before agreeing to come to Kansas from the northeast.
“To be honest, we’re from New York City,” he said. “We had to do a lot of homework before we were convinced that Derby was the right place.”
But Gsell said he was convinced. The demographics – educated families with young children – played right into the park’s market. He said Midwest tourism has a wide draw as well, meaning people from far-off states could see Field Station: Dinosaurs as a reason to visit.
The park in New Jersey has attracted visitors from 48 of the 50 states and has broken into the “tough-to-crack” New York City tourism industry.
“We get people who are coming and they’ll spend a day with us and they’ll go to the top of the Empire State building the next day and to the Statue of Liberty the next day after that,” he said.
Derby City Council members – and their constituents – will have to become as convinced as Gsell, though, to go ahead with the project.
The meeting last week was packed and Gsell said he had the opportunity to speak with City Council members, business owners and residents. But so far, Gsell said only the positive Derby residents have visited with him.
“Anybody who stayed after the meeting and came up to shake my hand [was] for the idea,” he said. “I’m sure I’ll hear from others in a future meeting.”
Relocating in New Jersey
The current Field Station: Dinosaurs park is in Seacaucus, N.J. But that could change since the county, whose land the park is occupying, has requested them to leave so they can build a school.
Gsell said the plan was always to relocate away from Seacaucus, but they were planning on staying for five years. The county is asking them to leave after four.
“So we’re scrambling a little bit in New Jersey,” he said. “But we have a number of interested locations.”
Gsell said the park will not relocate to Derby, but will find a new home in New Jersey. The Derby park will be built up from scratch with all-new technology and infrastructure.
The New Jersey park was built in the woods, meaning it was hidden from any roads. The Derby park, on the other hand, would be in plain view from Rock Road. Gsell said that has changed the way they are approaching the design of the site.
“Our design will match better,” he said. “It’s not the same animal.”
The dinosaurs themselves will be different animals as well. While Gsell said he has to have the staples such as the T-Rex or the Stegosaurus, he said he will also have dinosaurs and other prehistoric animals found in Kansas.
All the new dinosaurs would also be “next generation” with upgraded technology.
“It’s been five years and things improve every five years,” Gsell said. “Especially when it comes to technology.”
If plans go through with Field Station: Dinosaurs, the park would be funded with Sales Tax and Revenue (STAR) bonds. City Council members approved the first step of that process last week by setting up a public hearing on Aug. 25 to help decide on boundaries for the STAR bond.
Once the boundary is selected, the Kansas Department of Revenue takes a snapshot of the district’s sales tax revenue. Any additional sales tax revenue in the area would be paid directly toward the STAR bond project.
For example, if the city took a snapshot of the area and it pulled in $2 million in sales tax revenues, future sales tax revenues above $2 million would go directly toward the project.
No sales tax percentage increase would be needed to pay for the project at this point.
Worner, a Kansas investment banker, said he has worked on many other STAR bond projects in the state, including the NASCAR racetrack near Kansas City. Joe Norton of Gilmore and Bell will be representing Derby through the process and has dealt with many of the few STAR bond projects in the state.
“They’re not an easy process to get done,” he said. “So there haven’t been that many.”
If the STAR bonds work like they are supposed to, the coming attraction of Field Station: Dinosaurs would bring businesses – along with more sales tax revenue – to the area to help pay for the project.
The ideal STAR bond would include businesses that are in the area already, but also have room for new businesses to come in and develop. The proposed boundaries for the STAR bond district is on Rock Road from Meadowlark to north of Patriot Avenue. The district would include the Derby Marketplace area.
If the city acts quickly, they could capture sales tax revenues from new businesses coming in – like Hobby Lobby, TJ Maxx and Ross – as going toward the project, Sexton said.
The public hearing for the STAR bond district is set for 6:30 p.m. on Aug. 25 in City Hall. Council members said they want to hear from the community before making any decisions on the project.
“There are some people … that like the town the size it was or is,” Council member Cheryl Bannon said. “Others know the town has to grow and thrive and we can make this a regional destination that will bring in a lot of traffic for businesses. It will make some changes in the town, so more than anything, I want to hear from you.”