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Years ago, visitors came to Waukesha County to enjoy the lakes and relax in
the countryside.
Although people still come to enjoy the lakes and play on the county’s many golf courses, the county’s tourism industry increasingly relied more on business travelers staying at Waukesha County hotels and eating at area restaurants while attending conferences, trade shows, meetings and other events.
However, the county’s tourism equation is likely to soon tilt back toward families seeking entertainment and leisure destinations.
Proposals to create a new water park, an indoor sports complex, a new multi-screen movie cinema and a professional baseball park are in various stages of development or discussion in Waukesha County.
Tammy Tritz, president of the Waukesha County Tourism Initiative Group, said the new attractions could go a long way toward branding the county as a destination for family fun.
"It’s exactly what we need to elevate our reputation as a travel destination," Tritz said. "There’s just an exciting explosion we’re finding with the sports market in this area. It replaces some of the business travel we’ve lost. It generates more dollars into the community, with more people traveling, families eating meals and experiencing events."
Water park
The new Waukesha County tourism renaissance begins this weekend, when the Country Springs Hotel, Water Park and Convention Center opens in Waukesha as the only indoor water park between Milwaukee and Madison.
The water park features 45,000 square feet of slides, lazy rivers, water basketball, a whirlpool and other water-themed activities.
Dick Richards, a partner with Country Springs, said he decided to open the water park because the hotel has had fewer businesses booking rooms and meeting space in recent years.
Richards said Country Springs continues to book large numbers of weddings and banquets, but he wanted to offer an attraction that wasn’t available elsewhere to make the hotel, and Waukesha County as a whole, a more attractive destination for families.
"We want to create a different environment, where we’re getting people to come and spend a couple of days with us," Richards said. "But just a water park isn’t enough. We’ve got to get the arts, the symphony involved, and make it an area where (families) can come and go to Old World Wisconsin, shopping in Brookfield and go to some of the ethnic restaurants. It’s an area approach, and we want to let the water park be the catalyst for them to try all of the things in the Waukesha area – to create a feeling almost like Disney World or Orlando, where there are so many things you want to do."
Richards said many people from northern Illinois and the Milwaukee area visit indoor water parks in the Wisconsin Dells in the winter months. With his hotel’s location along Interstate 94, a prime route for those travelers, it should capture a share of that market, especially because it offers a shorter drive.
Waukesha County Executive Dan Finley said the opening of the water park should make a big difference in the way the county can be marketed, as well as the way leisure travelers look at the area.
"Our tourism numbers look good, but we have not typically been a destination county (for tourists)," Finley said. "What this park does is it makes us a destination county. It takes that convention facility, which has been predominantly for business people, and it opens it up for families.
"The water park is probably our top new recreational destination," Finley said. "We’re real excited about it. Water parks are popular. They’re hard to miss. I think they’ll do banner business. It’s great, not just for tourists, but also for residents."
Indoor sports complex
Work will soon begin in the Town of Vernon on another attraction that could bring more people to Waukesha County, many of whom may spend the night in a hotel such as Country Springs.
Ground will be broken in April on a new 52,700-square-foot indoor sports facility in Vernon.
Wayne Slawson, who is developing the site with his wife, Donna Slawson, estimated the cost of the site at $2 million to $7 million, depending upon its features.
Slawson said the facility will house six full-size basketball courts inside, which can be converted to eight volleyball courts. The courts will also be able to accommodate indoor flag football and soccer games, he said, and will be open seven days a week.
Eight sand volleyball courts will be built outside for play in the warmer months, along with three or four softball diamonds, where kickball teams can also play.
Slawson, the former owner of a steel erecting firm, is hoping to open the complex by the end October.
Slawson’s sports complex will be developed along Interstate 43.
"The development (in the area) is so up and coming," Slawson said. "We hope to draw from Milwaukee, East Troy and the western market. We feel like the area is a prime location for something like this."
The complex also will feature a food court for athletes and families attending tournaments. A restaurant, which will seat about 160 people, also will feature a bar and an outdoor patio overlooking the sand volleyball courts.
Slawson said the restaurant and bar will also be served by a four-tank microbrewery, something he said isn’t found in the southern part of Waukesha County.
The complex also will feature a 200-person team room, where teams can hold meetings or banquets before or during tournaments. Slawson said local groups also could rent the room.
"We can even do craft fairs," Slawson said. "Anything to keep it occupied."
Movie theater
Families coming to the Waukesha County to spend time in the water park or at a volleyball or basketball tournament will soon have another new option for watching movies.
Marcus Theatres is working on plans to build a new 17-screen cinema in the Town of Brookfield. The theater is proposed for an 18-acre site that formerly housed Schreiber Foods, located on Springdale Road just north of Bluemound Road and adjacent to an existing Sam’s Club.
Mark Gramz, senior vice president of operations for Marcus Theatres Corp., said the new theater would have about 3,800 seats and 990 parking spaces.
The proposed theater complex would have three ultra screens, which are about 75 feet wide by 30 feet high.
The former Schreiber site was a perfect fit for Marcus because of its proximity to Interstate 94 and Bluemound Road, Gramz said. He also said it is difficult to find a parcel of comparable size in eastern Waukesha County, where Marcus wanted to pursue the development.
"We feel fortunate to have found a site with visibility on the Interstate and access to both I-94 and Bluemound Road," Gramz said.
Gramz declined to discuss the value of the project, saying it still needs to be approved by the Town of Brookfield before plans could be finalized and a final cost could be determined.
Professional baseball park
Tourists coming to the county might have another entertainment option during the summer months.
Two groups are currently trying to bring minor league professional baseball to the city of Waukesha.
National Sports Services is one of the organizations trying to bring a professional baseball team to the city’s Frame Park, located along the Fox River. Matt Perry, chief executive officer of National Sports Services, said Waukesha’s demographics make it a natural place to establish a new team.
The National Sports Services team would be a member of the Northern League, which has teams throughout the Midwest and central Canada. The Northern League is not affiliated with Major League Baseball.
"We’re very confident in the market’s potential," Perry said. "We’ve found that teams in a solid league in the suburbs of major markets have done very well because they offer very easy access for people in the region and they’re very inexpensive."
Perry said the Waukesha team would likely hold about 50 home games per year.
However, numerous issues remain to be worked out with the group’s plan to redevelop an existing baseball field in the park, including parking logistics.
Another group also is looking to bring a professional baseball team to Waukesha. Named Mid-America Sports, the group initially looked at Frame Park as well, but recent talks with county officials have focused on developing a stadium on the grounds of the Waukesha County Expo Center.
Dale Shaver, director of county parks and land use, said the Expo Center site has several complications, some of which may be insurmountable.
"One of the values of the Expo Center is that it’s an open space," Shaver said. "The minute you start consuming that with stadiums, it limits the flexibility there."
Finley said the talks with the groups interested in bringing baseball to the city are in very early stages, and the county has made no commitment to either of them.
Still another group is working to bring a baseball team from the Northwoods League to Delafield. Talks have been ongoing for several years without a final plan, but they have gained new steam after St. John’s Northwestern Military Academy said it would consider allowing a small field and stadium to be developed on a piece of property it owns along the Bark River.
Those talks are still in conceptual stages, a St. John’s official said.
March, 4, 2005, Small Business Times, Milwaukee, WI

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