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VENTURA COUNTY BUSINESS

Corn Maze to Open in L. A. County

Entertainment: It will be built on city park land. Labyrinth in Fresno was the inspiration, owners say.

May 23, 2000|KAREN ROBINSON-JACOBS | TIMES STAFF WRITER

VAN NUYS — Can a recreational attraction make money if the customers keep getting lost?

Backers of an environmentally friendly "agri-tainment" attraction being created at Sepulveda Dam Recreation Area are betting up to $250,000 that the answer is yes.

It's called a corn maze, an elaborate labyrinth cut into a growing field of corn. And it's a business that, nationwide, has attracted growing numbers of farmers hoping to reap ample waves of gain.

Creating what was described as the first such maze for Los Angeles are Stu Miller, former owner of a popular Christmas tree business, and Greg Cole, co-owner of Encino-based Seasonal Enterprises.

Cole earlier this year purchased Stu Miller's Christmas Trees and is hoping, eventually, to grow it into a year-round business offering seasonal promotions.

Miller, who describes himself as semiretired, Cole and Cole's partner, Rob Lambert, secured a permit from the city's Recreation and Parks Department to develop an eight-acre section of Woodley Park, just north of a wildlife area. The maze, set to open in July, will be cut into the shape of the California state bear, complete with the star. It will feature more than five miles of pathways, with the most direct route taking less than 30 minutes to complete. For the directionally challenged, it might take longer.

The same basic description applies to those getting into the business.

Each year, new mazes sprout up around the country like so many corn seedlings. There is already a maze in Camarillo.

For some, the pathway to profit is clear. Others find themselves on a circuitous course filled with wrong turns and dead-ends, stymied by the unpredictability of Mother Nature, tripping over the stubble of changing consumer tastes.

"Almost all of the people who do it right make money," said consultant Brett Herbst, who owns Utah-based the Maize LLC and has designed more than 50 mazes nationwide.

"But some people go into this thinking they're not going to spend very much money, and they're just going to cut some paths through a cornfield. If they think that, they're just dreaming. If it was that easy, we'd all be millionaires."

Miller and Cole don't think it will be easy, but think they will emerge from the fiscal passageways profits in hand. And they may have up to a quarter-million dollars riding on that faith.

"We certainly don't know what the outcome will be," said Miller, who estimates that the maze will draw between 40,000 and 60,000 people during its summer-to-fall run. "But we're not going to lose a lot of money.

"We know the seasonal business, we know that it's a gamble and we're going to give it a shot. We're anticipating that we're going to make money in our first year."

The two acknowledge that they'll have to spend money to make money, and with a possible investment of up to $250,000 (depending on how much they spend on labor and promotions) the Woodley Park maze would rank as one of the most expensive in the nation, according to Herbst.

"You spend 250,000 bucks, whew," he said. "That's a lot of bodies to move through there. If someone wanted to spend that much I'd discourage them.

"It seems like a lot of money to gamble on Mother Nature," he added. "But, who knows?"

Herbst acknowledged that costs in Los Angeles for just about everything would be higher than in more rural areas where many of the mazes are located.

Miller said their costs include everything from an underground irrigation system to 4,200 feet of chain-link fencing around the perimeter of the site. Add to that labor and promotion, and it's pretty easy to rack up a $250,000 bill, they said.

"Everything associated with a maze in the central city is about five to six times what it is in an outlying area such as Fresno or Sacramento," said Miller.

By that same token the central city has a larger population base from which to draw customers. And the Valley, with its estimated 1.6 million residents (including many families with children), seems like an ideal spot for such a low-tech, nonthreatening recreational excursion.

Kevin Regan, Valley region superintendent for the city parks department, sees the project as a potential win not only for backers, but for the city and even for the migrating flocks of Canada geese.

The city, which controls the land, receives a flat $20,000 fee for the first 40,000 patrons, then $1 per person for every customer after that. In addition, the backers plan to bring in kid-friendly features like a moon bounce, slide and perhaps pony rides. The city gets 10% of those sales, in addition to a $600 fee for water usage.

Plus, when the corn becomes too dry to allow the maze to remain open, the corn will be "turned" into the ground and will provide food for migratory birds in the wildlife area just south of the site.

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