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Gold Rush Theme Park Planned


SAN FRANCISCO — A South African developer is hoping to find gold in them thar San Joaquin County acres by developing a Disneyland-style theme park based on the Gold Rush era.

Architect Norman Jarrett, who immigrated to Northern California from Johannesburg in 1986, said Monday that he is in preliminary stages of negotiating to buy more than 4,500 acres of San Joaquin County farmland.

If the necessary zoning changes and approvals can be secured, the land would be used for a $2-billion development encompassing the Gold Rush City theme park, as well as houses and apartments, time-share condominiums, hotels, a regional mall, a business park, a wild animal park and golf courses.

Gold Rush City, which the developers say could attract as many as 3 million visitors a year, would feature a re-creation of 1850s San Francisco, with horse-drawn vehicles, steam trains and boats. But it would also offer roller coasters and other rides.

Approval for the project is by no means a sure thing. Jarrett and his financial backers will face strong opposition from land preservationists. Fast-growing San Joaquin County and other Central Valley areas already are seeing the encroachment of new "bedroom communities" housing workers who cannot afford to buy homes in San Francisco, the East Bay or Silicon Valley.

"It's right smack in the middle of some of the world's best farmland," Will Shafroth, Western regional director of the American Farmland Trust, said of the proposed development. "This puts the ball in the county's court" to determine whether such development will be allowed.

Kitty Walker, senior planner for San Joaquin County, said the county generally is "in a pro-growth mode." Because of the seasonal nature of agriculture, the county's unemployment rate tends to be high and the county favors development as a way to provide jobs. The developers say this project would provide 20,000 jobs and $15 million in annual tax revenue for the county.

"Preservation of agricultural land is still a high priority," Walker said, "but it's in conflict with our growth accommodation."

However, she added that the Gold Rush City developers might be faced with "overwhelming" environmental concerns.

The farmland picked for development--just east of Tracy on the San Joaquin River near where Interstates 205 and 5 meet--is on a flood plain on reclaimed delta land protected by levees.

Jarrett and his backers are in the process of negotiating options to buy the land from several owners. The contracts would hinge on the developers' receiving the necessary zoning changes and approvals.

Much of the backing for the project would be from Miami-based Tate & Lyle Enterprises, which would be half owner. It is a subsidiary of Booker Tate Ltd., a British company with extensive sugar-processing facilities and landholdings worldwide.

Gary Pike, a San Francisco publicist for the project, cautioned that the negotiations are in very preliminary stages. Even if plans proceeded apace, the theme park would not receive guests until 1994 and other segments of the project would take as long as 15 years.

"It's not going to be an easy road," Pike said.

Los Angeles architect George Rester, who worked for 20 years as Walt Disney Co.'s chief architect, has been hired to assist in the planning.


The proposed site in San Joaquin County of a theme park based on California's Gold Rush era.

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