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Hard Rock Park files bankruptcy

The owner of Hard Rock Park filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy protection Wednesday and the park will be closed for the rest of the season, a company spokesman said.

The 55-acre, $400 million park plans to re-open in 2009, said Jim Olecki, a park spokesman. He would not go into detail when asked about the plans to emerge from bankruptcy protection. Court documents show the park owes between $100 million and $500 million, while holding assets of between $100 million and $500 million.

Olecki said the park, which opened in April, never had enough money for promotion to begin with, and the credit crisis that unfolded across the country over the summer made it impossible to get more, he said.

"The economy, the frozen credit markets, the global drop in tourism all just created a situation where ... we weren't getting the attendance that we needed and the costs exceeded what we were bringing in," he said. "Everything just kind of added up."

Economists and theme park industry experts said the park, which had been in the works since 2001, could not have opened at a worse time, as home prices fell, consumer confidence was lower than it had been in nearly two decades and gas prices were at record highs.

"The stars were clearly not aligned for them to get going this year, some of which was their own doing and some of which were other factors," said Don Schunk, a research economist at Coastal Carolina University who studies this area.

Annual pass and other ticket holders will have to wait until a bankruptcy judge decides whether those passes will be valid, refunded or forfeited, Olecki said.

Tony Ponte, of Little River, said he and his wife never got to use the $150 annual passes they bought. They had been waiting until the weather cooled down.

"I guess we waited too long," he said.

Of the 2,000 employees the park had during peak season, 75 nonseasonal employees will remain throughout the off-season, Olecki said.

The park, which has been the biggest investment in the history of the S.C. tourism industry, was heralded as the marquee draw that would attract more national and international tourists and investment.

"We're naturally disappointed, as we were hopeful Hard Rock Park would establish itself as an anchor attraction for the Grand Strand, and clearly that has not happened," said Brad Dean, president of the Myrtle Beach Area Chamber of Commerce. "Clearly in the future, we would encourage them to revisit the pricing strategy and consider more out-of-market advertising."

Schunk questioned whether the financial landscape would be better this winter than it was over the summer, given the recent market turmoil and credit drought.

"They certainly have a better chance of having a better year in 2009 just in terms of attendance," Schunk said. "But realistically, how can they, between now and next spring, given everything that's going on right now, how likely are they to go out and attract new investors? With the kind of markets we have right now that's a challenge for any business."

Critics have said the $50-a-head ticket for everyone older than 3 was too high for this market.

Last year, the park's marketing director, who left the company shortly after the park opened, said it would rely primarily on the media buzz generated by the park's billing as the world's first rock-'n'-roll theme park to get it started.

When it opened, the park said it expected to see up to 30,000 visitors a day in the high season and around 3 million for the full year. Executives later backed off that claim.

In a goodbye message on the park's Web site late Wednesday, it thanked the "hundreds of thousands of guests" who visited.

In August, the park said that attendance was not meeting expectations. It laid off 21 employees and reduced operating hours.

County Council Chairwoman Liz Gilland said she was saddened to hear the news.

"That breaks my heart,'' she said. "Because they did exactly what they dreamed they would do and they said they would do, and that is they built a first-class, world-class park that would have helped boost the economy along the Grand Strand. There couldn't have been a worse time to open.''

Gilland said she would be open to hearing what the park had to say if it asked for financial assistance from the county.

HRP Myrtle Beach Holdings LLC, the park's parent company, filed under Chapter 11 in Delaware bankruptcy court, Olecki said. The company licensed the brand name from Hard Rock International, which owns the restaurant chain.

Hard Rock International does not have an investment in the park besides licensing the franchise, said John Gogarty, spokesman for Hard Rock International.

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