Roger Marolt
Columnist
Snowmass Village, CO, Colorado

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April 2, 2013
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Roger Marolt: There's no such thing as bad development, only delayed success and ghosts

There is what's left of Rock-a-Hoola waterpark about 20 miles east of Barstow, Calif., in the heart of the Mojave Desert. The remnants are substantial, if not in substance than in the sheer mass of the dream that failed or, perhaps more accurately, the nightmare that succeeded.

The gigantic parking lot would be overgrown with weeds if only there were enough moisture in this part of the world to support them. Instead, there are only cracks blown in with sand. You can see the ticket booths, several kiosks lined up to accommodate the thousands of visitors who were supposed to stop here regularly on their ways to or from Los Angeles or Las Vegas.

The slides themselves look enticing, even without the glimmer of water making them look slippery fast. They are landscaped into the sides of an artificial mountain that was built for effect. There are many other buildings on the grounds. Now decorated with graffiti, you have to guess which ones were for snacks and refreshments and which ones for souvenirs of the experience. My guess is that it would take an hour to walk all the way around the grounds and check out your options, though.

Apparently the park opened sometime in the 1950s and operated tenuously through the 1980s until it was sued over an accident that occurred there and ensuing bankruptcy proceedings shuttered the place. Somebody else decided to take a shot at owning it and ran it for a few years in the 1990s until the rays of hope revealed themselves to be glare from the scorching desert sun reflecting off a heap of junk at the turn of the millennium. It's been ghost amusement since.

Normally, failures of this scale don't stay around long. For starters, they are an embarrassment, and whoever is responsible hopes to destroy the evidence as quickly as possible. After learning what is not the highest and best use of the property, you have to destroy the evidence. It's rule No. 1 for developers.

My guess, though, is that the old waterpark is going to be there forever, meaning for the amount of time it takes the hot desert wind to wear down the concrete walls and the dry air to oxidize all the steel. Who is going to go in there and spend money to have it torn down and hauled away? My bet is that the owners spent their last dime trying to get it to work. I doubt the thing is an environmental hazard. It's been there for so long that any endangered species in the area probably have taken up home in it. It might be an eyesore anywhere else, but here it's the most interesting thing to look at in a hundred miles.

What's most haunting about the waterpark in the middle of nowhere is that you know that at one time it was somebody's big idea. You don't spend the kind of money they did on a project that massive without being pretty darn cock-fire sure it's going to be a big success. You'd love to see the numbers they crunched and the studies they relied on. They must have had a Plan B and C. You know it would be funny to have a look at them, seeing how things turned out.

What happened? If you asked the developers, they'd probably say something like the thing was all ready to be a huge success, but they didn't get the approval to build an adjacent luxury hotel or it was legislatively scaled down to less than what it needed to achieve its "critical mass." I'd say if they didn't get those approvals, somebody saved them from losing even more on the deal. Maybe it was something as simple as their water rights drying up. Whatever it was, I'm sure they'd say it was "unforeseeable."

It seems like, if you go all in on a project like the Rock-a-Hoola waterpark, you don't give yourself much chance for salvaging anything if the improbable happens and the project goes toes up altogether. Some messes are so big, you can't clean them up. It's easy to say now, but they should have started with a gas station and a fast-food joint with a play park for the kids rather than trying to compete with Disneyland. They built the wrong kind of oasis. It's hard to say, though. Maybe that waterpark was thought up before they had 7-Eleven and McDonald's. Nobody can know what the real geniuses of grand developments have in mind. We can only judge the results.

Roger Marolt wonders if someone is going to buy Rock-a-Hoola for pennies on the dollar, turn it into something great and resurrect Barstow. Contact him at roger@maroltllp.com.


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The Aspen Times Updated Apr 2, 2013 05:02PM Published Apr 2, 2013 05:01PM Copyright 2013 The Aspen Times. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.