Macon’s Sandy Beach Water Park will reopen under new management at Lake Tobesofkee

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Liz Fabian

The Sandy Beach Water Park at Lake Tobesofkee is expected to reopen in time for Memorial Day 2020.

If days of rain have you looking forward to summer, you might not be alone.

StandGuard Aquatics Inc. is preparing to open the Sandy Beach Water Park at Lake Tobesofkee in time for the Memorial Day weekend.

After the facility did not open last year, Macon-Bibb County commissioners approved a new contract Tuesday night, but not before a couple of them voiced opposition to spending more money on the park which originally opened in 2015.

“We have not done right by taxpayers because the initial outlay of funds was $250,000, which we have not recouped,” said Commissioner Elaine Lucas who originally opposed the park when it was proposed in 2014. “This has not been a success so I don’t know why there’s an effort to keep moving this forward.”

Lucas accused Mayor Robert Reichert of having the park on his “bucket list,” presumably meaning tasks he’d like to accomplish before leaving office at the beginning of next year.

During last week’s committee meeting when the contract was presented, Commissioner Valerie Wynn interrupted StandGuard’s Matt Satterly’s presentation to scold the mayor.

Wynn accused Reichert of failing to investigate what it would cost to demolish the park, mothball it or salvage the equipment.

“You haven’t done any of the things we asked for,” Wynn said. “You can’t do that and expect a good outcome. … The body asked you a very specific question and you decided to ignore it.”

Reichert explained he was trying to get all that information, including whether the park could be viable this summer, so the county solicited proposals.

A week later at Tuesday’s meeting, commissioners learned the estimated cost to demolish the water park and restore the land would be about $200,000.

StandGuard requested $44,000 up front to replace safety gear, cabanas, make improvements and repairs.

Sandy Beach Water Park never reopened in 2019 after owner Jeff Franklin failed in his bid to secure investors to keep the operation going.

“It’s been kind of closed down and neglected,” Satterly said. “Then StandGuard would come in and market and try to drum up business for it.”

Satterly anticipated operating at a loss for 2020 due to a late start on marketing campaigns and season ticket sales but expected that to change in the second year of the 5-year contract.

Under the agreement, Macon pays the $44,000 upfront, about $25,000 annually for the cost of utilities and any repairs over $5,000.

Macon-Bibb continues to pay for utilities to keep water filters running in the pools and lazy river.

The county will receive 25 percent of gross revenue over $275,000 and 50 percent over $300,000. The 50-50 split threshold was added after Commissioner Mallory Jones balked on the original proposal.

“Twenty-five percent of something is better than 100 percent of nothing,” Reichert answered Jones’ objection.

Although the park has struggled, StandGuard is confident they can make it a success.

The 15-year-old aquatic management solutions company, based near Atlanta, manages several water parks across the country including Long Branch Lagoon Water Park in Dodge City, Kansas, and the DropZone Water Park and aquatic centers in Riverside, California. Those year-round facilities average about $1.8 million in annual revenue.

“If we didn’t think it was viable, we would have given you a lump sum” management fee in the proposal instead of a revenue split, Satterly said.

Macon-Bibb County has continued to pay utilities to keep filters running in the Sandy Beach Water Park that opened in 2015 and closed after the 2018 season.

When the park was built, Spirit of America Theme Park and Development LLC owner Jeff Franklin spent $2.7 million initially and added a $650,000 wave pool in 2017.

The county’s nearly quarter of a million dollar investment was for running utility lines, new roads and landscaping.

The opening, originally intended for Memorial Day Weekend of 2015, was delayed until July of that year when construction was complete.

Three weeks in, attendance was about 300 people daily and 800 on the weekends, which fell way short of projections for up to 1,200 per day.

Within the first month, admission was lowered from $15.00 to $12.50 for those over 42 inches tall and to $10 from $12.99 for smaller children. Families still protested the county’s additional $3 per person entrance fee to Sandy Beach for those 7 years old and over. The outcry caused the county to reduce parking fees to $5 per car in 2018.

Franklin, who had never built a water park, was financed largely through the Small Business Administration and the Bank of Perry, but failed to meet his financial obligations and the park went into receivership in March of 2017.

Florida-based Jeff Ellis Management replaced Spirt of America as park manager and took in $315,000 that year before the bank put the park up for sale at the end of the year for $2 million.

The 2018 season proved to be profitable with about $350,000 in revenue but that July several children ended up hospitalized with eye and ear infections that temporarily shut down the park.

The facility came out of receivership in 2019 when Franklin found a group of investors. He had planned to run the park and repay those investors, but the park never opened last year.

Because Franklin defaulted on the 20-year lease, Bibb County did not have to purchase the park in order to operate it, the mayor said last year.

The professional services agreement with StandGuard calls for the revenues to be turned into the county for accounting purposes before the company is paid.

Commissioner Larry Schlesinger believes the water park originally failed due to mismanagement and believes with the right marketing campaign it can be successful. He pointed to the recent success of the highly-marketed Macon Bacon baseball team after several other clubs failed at Luther Williams Field.

“I’d rather spend the 44-thousand rather than the 200-thousand to take it down,” Schlesinger said. “Let’s give the facility a chance.”

Mayor Pro Tem Al Tillman also voted for the proposal.

“Those of us that initially wanted a water park… we’re just in too deep to go back,” Tillman said.

Lucas and Wynn were not convinced even though the cost of the contract was less than half of the cost of demolition.

Lucas objected to paying the $44,000 StandGuard required to get the facility running.

“Those who want to vote for this bad deal can vote for it,” Lucas said. “We don’t underwrite businesses that come here.”

Since Bibb County’s 8-acre water park opened, the $15 million Rigby’s Water World in Warner Robins followed three years later in the summer of 2018. That newer facility is more than three times the size of the one at Sandy Beach, which factored in Wynn’s decision to oppose spending more money at Lake Tobesofkee.

“I just don’t think we’re going to be able to compete with what’s going on in Houston County,” she said before casting her vote.

Contact Civic Reporting Senior Fellow Liz Fabian at 478-301-2976 or [email protected]