Hard Rock Park developer reflects on what went wrong five years after its only season

dbryant@thesunnews.comSeptember 15, 2013 

One of the developers of the failed Hard Rock Park theme park is reflecting on the project five years after its first and only summer season, saying the large debt and faltering economy led to its demise.

But despite ending up as what park mastermind Jon Binkowski joked was a cataclysmic failure of the industry, it’s still the project he’s most proud of and would love to be part of again, he said during a recent podcast.

“It is one of the most awesome disasters in the theme park industry as far as something closing down, but also it is one I am most proud of,” Binkowski said in the podcast recorded earlier this month. “It’s something I point to and I am proud of it...

“Even now if you were to walk the park, it is just really well put together...It is still a great concept. I still love it and I still believe strongly in it. ...I’d jump back in with both feet.”

But the future of the park in Fantasy Harbour off U.S. 501 in Myrtle Beach is still up in the air. The park failed twice in two years, first as Hard Rock Park in 2008 then under new ownership as Freestyle Music Park, which opened and closed in 2009.

It has sat unused since, with the towering roller coaster still overlooking the site. An attorney for the park has declined to comment on the park’s future, and a potential deal with a neighboring ministry to the buy the land to expand its programs didn’t go through earlier this year after it couldn’t raise enough money.

Binkowski, one of the three Hard Rock developers, reminisced about the park during a more than hour-long, light-hearted chat Sept. 5 on Season Pass, a podcast devoted to the theme park industry. Binkowski, who shared a couple of jokes and laughs about the park’s short-lived history during the interview, relived how the park came about, what led to its downfall and the intricacies of how some of the notable rides, including the Led Zeppelin signature roller coaster and the park’s “sleeper hit” Nights in White Satin came together.

The project had a loan of $385 million to get it built and opened, Binkowski said, money that came in after obtaining several million dollars to jumpstart the effort from local investors who knew the market, including former AVX Corp. CEO Dick Rosen and Tim Duncan.

Though billed during its development and opening as a $400 million park, most of that price tag went to pay debt and for other “financial things,” Binkowski said.

“The park itself really only had about a $225 million budget to build this whole park,” he said.

The large amount of financing is one of the biggest factors Binkowski said led to the park’s demise, coupled with a slowing economy and $4 a gallon gas prices that ate into the discretionary dollars available to the tourists the park counted on.

When times got tough, Hard Rock Park owners didn’t have a “mother ship” to turn to for help, Binkowski said.

“We were highly financed. A lot of it was borrowed money,” he said, adding that investors weren’t willing to chip in even more money to keep the park running for a few more years until better times. “It’s very hard for them to accept doing that and it’s much easier to write it off...

“That kind of piled on top of us and we kind of crumpled under the weight...

“20/20 hindsight is a wonderful thing. It was kind of a perfect storm of horrible things happening.”

Binkowski brushed off the nay-sayers who blamed the park’s high ticket prices and marketing plan for its failure.

“That was all massaging that was being worked out over the season,” Binkowski said. “There’s lots of people who have lots of opinions.”

Aside from the economics of the park, Binkowski gave details during the podcast about how the Hard Rock Park theme came about, the park originally was to focus on the four seasons of summer, spring, winter and fall; how it picked which musicians to partner with, including Led Zeppelin and how the concepts of some of the rides emerged.

As he does about the park’s concept, Binkowski still stands behind Myrtle Beach.

“I happen to love Myrtle Beach. I think it is a great market,” he said.

After the park’s failure, Binkowski “crawled out from under my desk” -- he said jokingly -- and returned to his company, Renaissance Entertainment, which he said has done work for Disney and others.

“Everyone went on to continue to do great things,” he said.

Binkowski joked about the content that turns up when he Googles his name, and the Hard Rock hit to his reputation.

“It’s like having mono,” he joked. “Nobody wants to kiss you anymore.”

Want to listen to the entire podcast? Go to http://micechat.com/40907-season-pass-podcast-jon-binkowski-hard-rock-park/.

Contact DAWN BRYANT at 626-0296 or at dbryant@thesunnews.com or follow her at Twitter.com/TSN_dawnbryant.

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