A multi-million dollar waterpark that was supposed to help bolster tiny Shipshewana’s economy seems to be bringing local officials headaches instead.
Splash Universe and the adjacent Amish Country Inn opened amid much fanfare in late 2007. Dean Morgan, former general manager of the Shipshewana Town Center, said at the grand opening at the time that the development had created more than 100 jobs and that it was expected to lure many, many more visitors.
Fast forward to the present and sentiment has shifted dramatically.
The indoor water complex and hotel — owned by an entity associated with Standard Bank of Hickory Hills, Ill., in suburban Chicago — owes $768,754.46 in back taxes and penalties. Officials in LaGrange County, meanwhile, are left wondering what to do to recoup the money.
LaGrange County Commissioner George Bachman worries non-payment will continue, with overdue taxes mounting and mounting. Thus, county officials are mulling a special tax sale, possibly in March, to sell the operation and generate the overdue tax funds, he said.
“It’s just going to keep getting worse and worse so we’re going to force the issue,” Bachman said Monday. If it isn’t sold, he hopes the threat of the sale forces the owner of the splash park and hotel, an entitiy called Shipshewana Development, to cough up the money.
A rep from Standard Bank, listed in LaGrange County tax paperwork as the contact for Shipshewana Development, didn’t immediately respond Monday to an e-mailed series of queries. Likewise, Splash Universe and Amish Country Inn reps didn’t return calls seeking comment.
‘NO CARS, ZERO’
At the splash park’s grand opening — which came as the national economy started to tank — Morgan forecast big things for Shipshewana. The town has just 658 residents, according to the 2010 U.S. Census Burea population count.
“We’ve created well over a hundred new jobs here,” he said in an Elkhart Truth report at the time. “We expect it to bring well over 150,000 new people to Shipshwana. And that will benefit all the merchants, the attraction and the vendors in town.”
The facility’s estimated price tag, according to the report, hovered around $25 million.
Of late, though, Bachman said he rarely sees autos in the water facility’s parking lot, though it seemed to be about a third filled over the weekend. The waterpark website indicates the splash park operates Thursday through Sunday.
“A lot of times I go through and there’s no cars, zero,” he said. “I can tell you it’s been slow.”
The waterpark, located at 800 S. Van Buren St., features twisting slides, a 500-gallon splash bucket and a “relaxing lazy river,” according to the Splash Universe website. The adjacent Amish Country Inn has 154 rooms.
NOT THE FIRST TAX SALE
The $768,754.46 that the water park and hotel owner owes represents $588,968.12 in property taxes for 2009, 2010 and 2011, plus $179,786.34 in late penalties and fees, according to the LaGrange County tax card on the property. The assessed valuation for 2011 of the combined entity totals $6.97 million, according to the office of LaGrange County Treasurer Vonda Akey, $6.63 million for the waterpark and hotel and $340,000 for the 6.27-acre plot on which they sit.
The proposed tax sale in March wouldn’t be the first time the water park and hotel went on the auction block. LaGrange County officials put it and other delinquent properties up for grabs at the tax sale sponsored by the county treasurer’s office late last year.
The minimum bid that first go-round amounted to the delinquent taxes and penalties, plus a 10 percent charge. “Nobody bid on it. Nobody picked it up,” Bachman said.
Unlike that initial tax sale, overseen by Akey’s office, the new sale would be overseen by county commissioners.