EAST COUNTY — Lakewood Ranch residents Aaron and Kathy Corr have had their heads in the clouds lately — or at least in the tree tops.
The veteran entrepreneurs, whose affinity for the great outdoors has long been a source of livelihood and adventure, are taking a cue from a park they first saw built near their home in Canada many years ago.
The concept: to combine zip lines with wobbly bridges, and bungee swings with hanging nets. It’s a popular kind of adventure park in Europe, especially in France, where there are hundreds. But not so much in Florida, where the nearest park even slightly comparable to the Corrs’ concept is in Sanford, northeast of Orlando.
Says Aaron Corr: “We both want this place to be fun.”
Aaron Corr, an engineer, and his wife, a physical therapist, are eager to open the unique tree top-laden obstacle course and recreational park in rural Manatee County.
After more than two years of permitting and construction, TreeUmph! will hold its public grand opening Jan. 12.
“This is really a park for everyone, not just for extreme people,” Aaron Corr says. “It’s a thrill; it’s a lot of fun. You’re right up there in the canopy of the trees. It’s a different environment; a very beautiful one.”
“The parks are very, very safe,” he adds. “You’re always clipped in at least two times to a cable that could hold a city bus.”
Park patrons start by purchasing tickets for the course — costs range from $25.95 to $49.95 for the day, depending on age — before getting a 30-minute demonstration and safety lesson and then being released toward the tree tops.
Each of five adult courses gets progressively harder. The first course is fairly easy: “If you can climb a ladder, you can do the course,” Aaron Corr says.
After that, the difficulty increases. The most challenging course, called the Summit course, ventures to 60 feet up in the air with hanging nets and swinging ropes and overhand monkey bars.
“It requires a lot of strength and endurance,” Aaron Corr says. “Not everyone is going to get there. Most people get through two or three courses and they feel like they’ve had a great time.”
A 600-foot zip line takes guests back to the visitors center. The children’s course is designed so that parents can watch children play, as well.
Aaron Corr says the facility is well-suited for birthday parties, fundraising events and other activities.
The Corrs, who previously ran a few businesses together in Canada, have persevered through a rigorous permitting and construction process.
The largest challenge in the building process, in fact, took place outside the park entrance, on the eastbound side of S.R. 70, a two-lane road. That’s where Florida transportation officials initially told the Corrs it would cost $500,000 to build a turn lane wide enough to satisfy the increased traffic demand seeking to go left, into the park.
The Corrs balked. Even though they were more than a year into the project and had already spent thousands of dollars, Aaron Corr says the turn lane would have been the “beast” that killed it. Spending one-third of the total budget on a turn lane, he adds, would have been “project prohibitive.”
In near desperation, the Corrs, through local marketing firm Grapevine Communications, reached out to U.S. Rep. Vern Buchanan, R-Longboat Key. They met with Buchanan’s field representative, Danny Bilyeu, a former Sarasota city commissioner. Bilyeu was able to connect the Corrs with the right people at the Florida Department of Transportation. That was the first step in a series of conversations that ultimately cut the turn-lane bill by more than 50%, to roughly $200,000.
“It was still a big sting,” says AaronCorr, “but we were able to do it.”
Bilyeu deferred questions to Buchanan’s communications office. Sally Tibbetts, Buchanan’s district director, says the office is “pleased that the company’s concerns were addressed.”
Corr says the overall experience with Manatee County planning and building managers and other local officials was good, despite the turn-lane hurdle. TreeUmph!, he realizes, is a complicated, permit-heavy project, down to the grass parking lot.
Some of the permits moved quickly through a fast-track process with assistance from the Manatee County Economic Development Corp. Other officials were helpful, Corr says, in getting fast answers before issues grew big.
“We had some hiccups, but everyone we worked with was great,” says Corr. “They don’t know how to deal with a project like this. They’ve never seen one before.”
The Corrs first saw an adventure course like this in Canada, when the couple lived in New Brunswick. That’s where Kathy Corr, a physical therapist, was born and raised. The Corrs ran several businesses in New Brunswick, including a kayak-tour service, a marine science-and-education company and physical therapy clinics. A native of Maine, Aaron Corr is a civil engineer by trade.
In spring 2009, the Corrs watched an adventure park go up right next to their house. They were fascinated with the concept.
“We knew we would do it someday,” says Aaron Corr.
The couple moved in December 2009, to Florida, mostly for lifestyle changes. They decided to chase their adventure-park dream in 2010.
The first step was to find the land, a singular challenge. The Corrs initially worked with Schroeder-Manatee Ranch, the developers behind Lakewood Ranch. But Corr says the prices were too high for SMR land and a few other parcels.
“We spent a lot of time looking all over Sarasota and Manatee counties,” Aaron Corr says. “But we didn’t have the ability to spend millions of dollars on property.”
The Corrs ultimately bought 14 acres from local landowners Jeff and Tina Neuzil and Richard Snowden. They paid $190,000 for the land, or $13,570 an acre.
The Corrs were admittedly picky in finding land to buy. Outplay Adventures, the company they hired to build Treeumph!, offered advice on any potential land purchases in terms of the compatibility for the project. The Corrs also hired an arborist to check the health of the trees on the land before they closed on the deal.
Aaron Corr says the project “takes a special piece of property that was the right combination of wet ground and dry ground.” Sarasota-based Gateway Bank financed part of the land purchase and project. The rest came from the Corrs’ savings.
Aaron Corr showed off Treeumph! to a visitor in late October while a crew from Outplay, based near Lake George, N.Y., in the Adirondacks, worked on it. Features include: five adult courses, from beginner to extreme; a children’s course for ages 7 and up; a 650-foot long zip line; more than 75 tree top adventure games; and a snack bar and gift shop.
A looming challenge going into 2013 will doubtlessly be how to market something so remote and unique.
One goal, the Corrs say, is to build relationships with the local hospitality community. For example, with Grapevine’s assistance, they compiled and distributed 100,000 marketing brochures for hotel lobbies. The Corrs, in general, plan to spend $50,000 to $100,000 a year in marketing.
The Corrs also want to develop a rapport with local businesses, schools and community groups. Aaron Corr says they will consider everything from radio and TV ads to billboards to get the word out.
“Our biggest problem is deciding where to market,” says Aaron Corr. “There are a lot of options.”
Past that challenge, a cautionary tale lies in Adventure Training Concepts, a Naples-based business that offered obstacle courses, mostly in wooded areas, for corporate training and teambuilding. Michelle Jones, who co-founded ATC in 2006 with her husband, Brian Jones, says demand for that niche-specific recreation dropped significantly in the recession.
Demand dropped so much, actually, the Joneses switched gears in 2010. Now they run Altair Training Solutions, which, instead, focuses on weapons and firearms training.
“The Corrs hope to avoid that fate. They plan to hire 15 to 20 employees, a mix of full- and part-time jobs, to staff TreeUmph! Some employees will be guides, while others will work in customer service.
The entrepreneurs also hope a diverse price structure and customer base will provide a cushion to the unbalanced economy. Prices range from $30 for the children’s course to up to $50 for a full adult course. Private guides and birthday parties are available, too.
“It has been our dream to bring an outdoor adventure park to this community,”Aaron Corr says. “We are creating an exciting way to spend the day outdoors with friends and family.”
— Pam Eubanks contributed to this report.