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Corn Maze Investors Seek Crop of Visitors

Recreation: Huge labyrinth will be cut into a cornfield at site in San Fernando Valley.

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

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

Backers of an environmentally friendly "agri-tainment" attraction being created at the 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. Farmers across the nation have devoted some of their land to similar seasonal attractions, but the Van Nuys project would be the first in an area as largely urban as Los Angeles.

Some have been successful, but others have been stymied by the unpredictability of Mother Nature or 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."

The Van Nuys maze is being created by Greg Cole, Rob Lambert and Stu Miller of Encino-based Seasonal Enterprises.

They secured a permit from the Los Angeles 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 bear depicted on the California state flag. It will feature more than five miles of pathways, with the most direct route taking less than 30 minutes to complete.

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

With an investment of up to $250,000 (depending on how much is spent on labor and promotion), the Woodley Park maze would rank as one of the most expensive in the nation, Herbst said.

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

Miller said the costs include everything from an underground irrigation system to 4,200 feet of chain-link fencing around the site, and noted that expenses generally run higher in a big city compared with more rural areas.

But then, a large city has more people from which to draw customers. Organizers see the Valley, with its about 1.6 million residents, as 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 its developers, but for the city and even for 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 children-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 plowed under and provide food for the migratory birds in the wildlife area south of the site.

"For the city, it looked like a great way to make some revenue and at the same time, utilize a piece of property that was not only not being utilized, but was full of weeds," said Regan, who noted that other concessionaires are allowed to operate on city land. "Not only are we not having to pay to have the weeds removed, but we're going to make some money."

Cole said he and Miller traveled to Madison, Wis., for a "corn maze convention," where they gained insights into this new business. Miller focuses on the agricultural aspects of the project, while Cole handles the business end.

In addition to Christmas trees, the company also hosts pumpkin patches and sells Halloween costumes in the Valley region.

"Now what we need is something for Easter," Cole quipped.

The Christmas tree part of the company dates back to 1961, when Miller opened his first tree lot in Northridge, not far from where Miller's family once grew citrus trees. Today, the company owns 19 lots in Southern California and three in Las Vegas.

Will the corn maze business prove to be as successful as marketing holiday trees? "There's only one way to find out," Cole said. "You jump in with all three feet."

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