Roanoke Times
                 Copyright (c) 1995, Landmark Communications, Inc.

DATE: FRIDAY, November 12, 1993                   TAG: 9311120139
SECTION: VIRGINIA                    PAGE: B-1   EDITION: METRO 
DATELINE: WYTHEVILLE                                LENGTH: Long


"Don't buy your Mickey Mouse ears yet," WYVE radio news and sports director Danny Gordon advised Wythe County listeners this week when word got around that Walt Disney Co. planned to build a theme park in Virginia.

Some folks in Wythe County have been halfway expecting Disney to move here for years.

Gordon, who has been doing radio news for nine years and was a reporter at Wytheville's Southwest Virginia Enterprise before that, remembered the rumor that wouldn't die: Disney was seeking real estate in eastern Wythe County.

It took only a few days for confirmation that Disney really was planning a Virginia theme park this time, but it would be in Prince William County near the crossing of Interstates 81 and 66, rather than Wythe at the crossing of 81 and 77.

Whether Disney ever really considered Wythe County still is debated. "It was just speculation, all of it," said Commissioner of Revenue Mary "Sis" Brown, who got periodic inquiries about whether Disney was looking.

But County Administrator Billy Branson said he understood from unofficial sources that Disney did option some acreage in the Fort Chiswell area at one time.

Patrick MaMahan, director of the Virginia Tourism Commission, and John Strutner, regional tourism community services manager, were speaking at Rep. Rick Boucher's tourism conference last week in Marion when the Wall Street Journal broke the news on Disney's Virginia venture. It caught them both by surprise.

"I know nothing," Strutner replied to questioners, imitating the German prison camp guard from the "Hogan's Heroes" TV series. Kitty Grady, Wytheville public relations director, gave the same answer.

She spent the next three days on the phone trying to find out more, until the official announcement that Disney had picked a site in Haymarket, west of the historic Civil War battlefield at Manassas.

"It would be nice. It would be a dream come true, wouldn't it?" Grady reflected Thursday while attending the opening of a Goody's clothing store in Wytheville.

Some other shoppers were less enthusiastic. "I wouldn't want all that traffic congestion," one woman said. Another felt that the new clothing store was growth enough for Wytheville right now.

Grady remembered well the periodic Disney rumors surfacing during the past decade. She had investigated those, too, and found nothing to them.

"Some people from Florida did buy some land," she said. "That may have started them."

Richard Burrow, the engineer for the Explore Park project, heard the rumors and wondered if they might mean the Roanoke park would have some major competition in Southwest Virginia.

"Somebody bought a bunch of land in Wythe County near the intersection of 81 and 77 about six years ago, and we heard it was Disney and did some investigating," he said. Representatives of Explore were in contact with the Disney people on other matters at the time and asked them flat out.

"And they said no," Burrow said. "It was just somebody doing land speculation, but it was not Disney."

Curry Roberts was Virginia's secretary of economic development during the first round of rumors.

"We never looked into them, and we were never contacted by the Disney representatives," he said. "It just wasn't our style to foist ourselves on someone who was trying to be discreet."

To this day, Roberts cannot say if one of the speculators was a front for Disney.

Neither can Dr. Tom Butt, Wytheville's singing dentist who writes and records songs in Nashville when he's not improving people's smiles.

Butt was trying to sell about 700 acres in the Draper Valley area, "and I approached people in Florida," he said. "I even called Disney World and talked to the people down there."

He ended up selling to Bluestone Corp., a coal company out of West Virginia, which now has the land on the market. If Disney was hiding behind any others who looked, Butt never knew.

"I heard the same rumors, and they wouldn't tell me one way or the other," he said. "I showed it to at least a dozen different individuals and corporations."

But he tried to make the Disney rumors come true. "I did contact them. I said Virginia was a great place, that we had the interstates. . . . Maybe put a bug in their ear, anyway."

WYVE's Gordon got to know the Disney real estate people by phone, calling them when the rumors would sprout periodically. He said they confirmed only that they were looking at East Coast locations.

But Gordon said Disney did go further once. "Disney took an option through a private realty company but let it lapse," he said. "So we know they looked here."

Although the proposed Disney park at Haymarket would have about 1,000 employees and bring in an estimated 30,000 visitors a day when it opens - scheduled for 1998 - there is some resistance to the venture. It would require extensive rezoning, and there are those in Prince William raising the same concerns about too-rapid growth and congestion that worried the two Wytheville shoppers.

"I still think we're a better location," with two interstates and work on bringing Interstate 73 through the county, Gordon said. "So who knows? There still might be a possibility it could end up here."

 by CNB