Bonfante regrouping for future

Board faces challenge with struggling park after second early
closing in a row
It doesn’t take a Nobel Prize mathematician to figure out that
Bonfante Gardens is in deep financial trouble. How the new board of
directors deals with finding new sources of revenue, however, is
the key to the amusement park’s future.
Board faces challenge with struggling park after second early closing in a row

It doesn’t take a Nobel Prize mathematician to figure out that Bonfante Gardens is in deep financial trouble. How the new board of directors deals with finding new sources of revenue, however, is the key to the amusement park’s future.

As had been feared, the park’s Board of Trustees announced Friday the cutting of the park’s full-time workforce from 55 people to about 15 and also elected to curtail its upcoming holiday season to a limited caroling event on Dec. 7 and 8.

“Sometimes you have to do painful things,” said board Chairman Bob Kraemer, “to save the body. This is not something we wanted to do.”

And while the word is that the latest changes were done to save money to ramp up for next spring, Bonfante Gardens General Manager Ed Hutton isn’t sure what will happen after the park closes for the season Oct. 20.

“I don’t know the answer, but I’ll know better in 60 to 90 days,” said Hutton when asked if the park’s opening in 2003 is 100 percent certain. “I can’t guarantee anything; but I will say that everything we are doing is being done to get us to next spring.”

That puts the park in a dilemma. One of the problems securing revenue this year is that park officials were uncertain if funding would emerge for the current season, which meant they couldn’t solicit corporations for company picnics.

“We need all of the little things that can’t build a business but can make you profitable,” said Kraemer.

During the downtime, the board will be assessing every aspect of the park, including how many days a year it would be profitable to be open in the future, what admission price is high enough to maintain operations yet reasonable enough to draw crowds, and how many employees should be on board.

“Bonfante had 70 people considered year-round employees,” Kraemer said. “There’s no way we can afford 70 on our payroll – I don’t think ever. We need to find what that balance is. We need to find other uses for the park.”

Park officials announced the cancellation of a special holiday season light event-despite the fact that park officials hyped it up just weeks ago.

The Bonfante Gardens Board of Trustees made the decision at a meeting last week. Michael Bonfante then spent Wednesday through Friday meeting personally with park employees to give them the bad news.

Just this spring, the park, an oasis of immaculate and unusual landscaping and gentle rides, received an $8.5 million dollar loan, secured by property holdings, from electronics mogul John Fry. It was enough money to keep the park operating through 2007, according to officials at the time. But that was based on the assumption that some 500,000 patrons would attend the park this year.

So far, those numbers have been below projections.

“On an operating basis, we are not that much (in the red),” said Hutton. “But we’re looking at the long-term debt and we need those attendance figures to support it. I don’t know for sure, but I’d say by the time we close we’ll be in the area of between 420,000 and 430,000 in attendance this year.”

While those numbers may be close to projections, Hutton, was quick to point out that those 70,000 missing people equates to roughly a $2.1 million shortfall for the financially strapped park. Because of its status as a non-profit organization, selling the park to an amusement company is close to impossible.

While all of this is going on the park’s founder, Bonfante remains an elusive figure.

“Michael is here a lot. I would say that he feels worn out right now-probably a little beat down,” said Hutton. “But I really can’t say for sure. He built this park and spent a lot of money on it. He’s really in the spotlight with this park; but I don’t think he likes being there.”

When the park closes next Sunday, it will be the second time since it opened that money troubles have forced its closure. Not exactly the best medicine for business in desperate need of pleasing the public.

“This is (a public relations nightmare right now),” said Bonfante Gardens Trustee Al Pinheiro. “But in order to avoid running out of cash, we had to make the decisions we made. Sometimes your heart tells you one thing but your business sense tells you another. We had to do what we did.”

And next year, even if it does reopen as planned, getting the general public to buy into Bonfante Gardens will be difficult. For the last two years, season ticket holders have not been able to use their passes for the duration that was promised at the time of purchase.

Park officials have not yet decided whether or how they will compensate their 22,000 season ticket holders, who paid as much as $70 each for passes that they expected would last throughout the year. The problem was handled last year by giving a $20 discount to renew this season.

The park’s skeleton staff now includes a handful of gardeners, administrators and security guards.

“I’d say some (of the laid-off employees) understand the situation, but others are very disappointed because they have to go out and find another job,” said Hutton.

Hutton knows that making the picturesque horticulturally inspired theme park attractive to companies to host corporate picnics is also a vital part of the park’s revenue stream.

“This park opened in a weak economy. All amusement parks on the West Coast are struggling right now-even Disney. Look at what happened with California Adventure. In a boom year, consumer confidence would be up and we might have another story to tell. But that’s not the case right now. Attendance is down and companies aren’t doing picnics.”

In addition to a reduced attendance, those who did come spent less money in the park, Kraemer said. The biggest attendance day of the year was when the park combined with Coca Cola to offer a $10 discount off the $29.95 admission price, Kraemer said.

Bonfante Gardens was the vision and creation of Nob Hill Foods icon Michael Bonfante, who spend 20 years developing it and sunk $100 million of his own fortune into building it.

In addition to Bonfante’s personal investment, the City of Gilroy has granted favors and concessions to help his park succeed. After initially voting to annex the property, the Gilroy City Council has since approved $37 million in city bonds to fund the improvements for the non-profit park.

While the city has no obligation for repayment, the move helped the park because only a government agency can issue tax-exempt bonds.

From there, the council changed zoning on part of Hecker Pass to allow the potential development of 80 upscale houses along what was supposed to be a scenic highway so that the park could raise additional money to stay afloat.

“This is a very big dilemma right now, to find the funds to keep it going,” said Pinheiro. “We are known for the Garlic Festival but this park is truly a jewel for the community as well. It is very positive for our town, but we need to be realistic too and be able to fulfill the debt service. The problem is that we are not in a tourism area.”

In the upcoming months, officials from the park will be looking for a company to partner with who will not only help with the park’s operation but also have the deep pockets necessary to keep it going for the long haul. Trustees liken the passive experience of the park to the old Santa’s Village and Frontier Village and are looking for experience in those areas.

“I think we’re looking for a management company that can manage and bring cash to operate the park, and get a fee based on their performance,” said Hutton. “We have approached three or four potential investors. Nothing is in the works yet but we are hopeful.”

Staff Writer Tracie Cone contributed to this report.

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