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Posted: June 18, 2010

The making of an amusement park mogul

It started with a prayer

Brooke Wylie

Elitch Gardens, a Denver icon for 120 years, came to be a part of Randy Drew's life when he set to work on "Project Hail Mary."

Back in 2006, Drew was working in investment banking, but what he really wanted was to get back into the amusement park business-as an attorney he had represented parks and park groups, and later worked for one of his clients before getting into investment banking. Drew says he prayed, closed his office in New York and set out to find an amusement park.

He called people from his past and asked if they wanted in. They did.

That was also the year Six Flags announced that it would be putting some of its parks up for sale. Elitch's was one of them. The announcement came after Drew and his team had started their search. They sought out possible properties and assigned each one a project name.

"When Six Flags called, we didn't think it was very likely that we would be able to buy the parks from them, so we named it 'Project Hail Mary.' It was an amazing journey," Drew said.

In that initial purchase, which came in 2007, PARC Management LLC-of which Drew is President and CEO-acquired seven parks from Six Flags: Elitch Gardens, Darian Lake Resort, Frontier City, SplashTown, Waterworld California, White Water Bay and Wild Waves.

The company now owns 25 parks across the country and is the fourth largest regional theme park group in the United States. "We had a 900-square-foot office to start; people were having conference calls from their cars. Now we're a sizable company and it all came out of a prayer, Project Hail Mary," Drew said.

Despite the company's rapid growth, Drew says the focus is still on the communities they serve. "It's really about giving back and being part of the community," he said. "If we are effective partners in a community, our business will take care of itself."

That's what PARC Foundation, what Drew calls the "heart of PARC," is all about. As a partner with the Denver Public Library Summer of Reading, PARC Foundation and Elitch Gardens donated more than $1.2 million, in the form of more than 30,000 daily admission passes to summer reading programs.

Denver Nuggets' star Chauncey Billups is also helping PARC give back to Denver. The Chauncey Billups Foundation and the Denver Leadership Foundation have partnered with PARC Foundation on the upcoming Carload for Caring initiative. Starting August 14, for $10, visitors to Elitch's can enter to win a 2009 Nissan Versa loaded with items such as Billups' autographed, game worn shoes from the 2009 Western Conference Finals.

Ventures such as these demonstrate the values Drew believes set PARC apart. "It's our culture that differentiates us, and our culture that drives us," Drew said. "Our mission is to strengthen the body, mind and spirit of children and communities. It's a heart mission, we believe in what we do."

Elitch Gardens has more to offer the community than entertainment and philanthropic ventures. The park has 54-56 full-time, year-round employees and almost 1,500 additional employees during the operating season. Drew estimates that means close to $150 million in economic benefit for Colorado, not including the taxes the park pays. He also added that employees at Elitch's show more than average loyalty to the park, with more than twice the industry standard returning to work at the park each year.

This year has not seen any new rides crop up at Elitch's, but the park has had something of a facelift, with six slides and seven rides receiving new gel coating and the placement of 243,360 LED lights on the Ferris wheel.

Drew says that PARC works to preserve the original spirit of each park. "Elitch's started as a family business and we felt that it needed to go back to the community," he said of changes made with the hope that people from all economic standings would be able to enjoy the park.

"When we took over, it cost too much, we lowered food prices, then ticket prices and parking prices. We created special opportunities to save money and increase value," Drew said, "and we have results to speak to that, great results, even in a tough economy."

The roller coaster has long served as a metaphor for the passage of a journey, and that's an idea Drew is willing to take even further. For him, the theme park business mimics life.

"Coasters are like a great story, you know where they are going to end up, but if they are built right, there is still so much suspense, because the journey is unknown," he said.

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Brooke Wylie is a ColoradoBiz intern.

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