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Cypress Gardens on the auction block

Creditors' demands could kill its savior's dreams.

By Mark Albright, Times Staff Writer
Published September 8, 2007


Three hurricanes couldn't stop Kent Buescher from reopening historic Cypress Gardens in 2004. But a fight over how much of the damage was covered by insurance could cost the colorful Georgia entrepreneur his prize.

Buescher pronounced bisher borrowed an extra $24.8-million to get work back on track after Hurricanes Charley, Jeanne and Francis left the once-lush Winter Haven park a leafless, swamped construction site. Insurers would only pay $6.9-million in claims. Now impatient creditors have forced Buescher to sell Cypress Gardens and Wild Adventures in Valdosta, Ga., his other park which was put up as collateral, to pay them off and settle his company's Chapter 11 bankruptcy.

A so-called stalking auction, which requires a minimum bid of $17.4-million for Cypress Gardens and $35.9-million for Wild Adventures, begins Sept. 25 in Macon, Ga., with a closing in early October, court records show.

The folksy Buescher, who has 40 investor partners in Cypress Gardens, will be a player in at least one of the investor groups vying for each park. He declined to identify the group, citing a confidentiality agreement.

"It's been a very tough road and these folks deserve to get their money, but they are going to have to drag me out of here with my boots on," said the 52-year-old Buescher. "No, make that my tennis shoes. I don't wear boots."

At least two unnamed bidders are interested in Cypress Gardens. HesrchendFamily Entertainment Corp., owners of Dollywood in Pigeon Forge, Tenn., and Dolly Parton's Dixie Stampede dinner theater in Orlando, will likely bid only for the Valdosta park. Meantime, local civic leaders have chatted up bidding interest with everyone from Orlando personal injury lawyer John Morgan, who owns a small amusement park and some oddities museums, to a Florida group that once wanted to buy Cypress Gardens with a stock offering.

"There doesn't appear to be time for that now," said Bob Gernert, director of the Winter Haven Area Chamber of Commerce. "But if somebody can get Cypress Gardens in this auction for $17-million to $30-million, that's a lot less than what Kent paid. With that debt gone, Cypress Gardens would be handsomely profitable."

Indeed, after first year attendance of 1.3-million, the park is on track to draw 1.1-million this year, roughly the same as 2006.

Meantime, it's business as usual at the park famous for water ski shows and hoop-skirted Southern belles. The park will stage its concert schedule as planned and its Halloween event, Phobia, which begins Sept. 28. New owners would have to honor current passes.

The park, however, recently reduced weekday hours for the slow fall season to 10 a.m. until 5 p.m. And it stopped running the 35-plus rides Monday through Thursday. The rides, including the new $4-millon Starliner wooden coaster, operate Friday through Sunday.

As a result, weekday admission has been cut to $19.95, less than half the standard weekend admission of $44.95 that includes a second day free.

There's nothing to stop Buescher from joining an investment group. Otherwise, his role may be no more than consultant.

"It's tragic," said Rick Dantzler, a former legislator and son-in-law of Dick Pope, who carved Florida's first theme park out of a thick cypress swamp in 1936.

"What Kent did to save Cypress Gardens has been heroic," Dantzler said. "He put it all on the line then was hit by this perfect storm of misfortune."

After the eye of Charley ripped through the heart of the park, toppling hundreds of trees and ripping open roofs, Buescher had crews working day and night. He got the insurance adjuster's okay to make repairs and opened the park only two months later than advertised.

Insurers, however, balked at most claims they said were for repairs not caused by windstorms or by two of the hurricanes they argued did not pass close enough to do damage.

Buescher sued Landmark American Insurance in 2005, but the case is in mediation, the prelude to a trial. In 2006, he sought Chapter 11 court protection to keep short-term creditors at bay. One creditor, Falcon Partners LP, already blocked several earlier attempts to sell the park.

Research assistant Angie Drobnic Holan contributed to this report. Mark Albright can be reached at albright@sptimes.com or (727) 893-8252.