Bonfante GM gone, partner sought

The general manager hailed as the savior of Bonfante Gardens
when he was hired 10 months ago is no longer at the helm of the
financially troubled theme park.
GILROY – The general manager hailed as the savior of Bonfante Gardens when he was hired 10 months ago is no longer at the helm of the financially troubled theme park.

Former Bonfante General Manager Ed Hutton – hired in February by the park’s creator, Michael Bonfante, to take over the park’s day-to-day operations – has not been employed at the park for more than two weeks.

It is not clear whether Hutton quit his position or was laid off like the majority of the park’s other 50 full-time employees in recent months, but the chairman of the park’s board of directors said Hutton’s departure was inevitable due to the park’s change in direction.

The board of directors decided in October to focus its energy on a plan to secure an outside business partner in hopes of waking the park from its financial doldrums.

“If and when we come up with a deal with a management team it is pretty obvious that they will want to bring their own person in,” said Bob Kraemer, director of the park’s seven-member board of directors, many of whom have taken an active role in the park’s future since financial woes forced massive layoffs. “It had nothing to do with Ed himself – I like Ed and I think he likes me – but with our finances we must continue to reduce our expenses to absolute essential activities.”

Hutton came to the park with a strong background in theme parks, playing large roles in operating the Winchester Mystery House and Frontier Village, both in San Jose, and immediately before coming to Gilroy he worked as director of the Santa Cruz Boardwalk.

Park administrators praised Hutton’s theme-park background when he was hired and said his knowledge would be essential to securing the park’s future. But as attendance projections fell nearly 20 percent below projections, the park closed earlier than scheduled for the second year in a row and across-the-board layoffs were announced in October, the park’s board was forced to search for outside help.

Since October the board – which includes Patti Hale, Joel Goldsmith, Steve Lowney, Alan Owens, City Councilman Al Pinheiro, Kraemer and Bonfante – has been searching restlessly for a partner to operate the park back to its feet.

“Our purpose is to find someone to guide us to a viable operation and business,” Kraemer said. “Without expertise we can’t really solve the problems we’re having. … We don’t necessarily want to borrow more money. We are looking for a management agreement with an organization to direct our business and supply the senior manager.”

While the board has been actively talking to “more than a handful” of interested partner prospects, Kraemer doesn’t expect a deal to be finalized until late December or January.

The fact that the theme park is a not-for-profit organization has caused some difficulty in finding a partner, but Kraemer is optimistic a deal can be reached soon.

In a recent letter to season pass holders, the park announced it will open for its 2003 season on April 12, and Kraemer said the sooner a partner can be selected the better.

“We want to do everything possible to avoid the situation the last two years when decisions were made too late and we were not able to actively promote the park,” Kraemer said. “The board has been working very hard to ensure we get management in place.”

Bonfante Gardens is currently operating with 15 full-time employees, including gardeners, security guards, an accountant and a marketing manager. In August the park employed 60 to 70 full-time workers and 550 seasonal employees.

“We will not even get into personnel issues until we find a partner,” Kraemer said. “So right now I can’t say what the numbers will be.”

Although unpaid, several members of the board have been putting in more than 40 hours a week during the past months to keep Bonfante afloat, Kraemer said.

After opening late in its inaugural year and suffering $10 million in construction cost overruns, the $100 million park closed 13 weeks earlier than expected in 2001.

In March, Bonfante agreed to restructure his previously handpicked board as part of a larger deal with the city to save the financially-troubled family theme park. After much debate, City Council agreed to help Bonfante secure development allocations to increase the value of a 32-acre, privately held parcel in Hecker Pass.

Former grocery mogul Bonfante will use the land and development allocations as collateral for an $8.5 million loan he brokered with electronics giant John Fry to keep his dream park alive.

This year the park was forced to cancel plans to stay open on the weekends in the fall and had to scrap a six-week series of holiday-themed light shows planned to run from Thanksgiving to New Year’s Day.

However, the park will still be holding a Holiday Celebration from 4 to 8 p.m. on Sunday. The event will include live entertainment, craft booths, beverages, a light display and, of course, Santa Claus.

“The board is here to stay,” Kraemer said. “We have an obligation to the city, our lenders and the community.”

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