Part 30: Virginia’s Sugartree Amusement Park was a $35 million bust
On June 26, 1971, Lakeside Amusement Park General Manager Beverley Roberts made a dramatic announcement: By 1973, Lakeside – a small but wildly popular amusement park in southwest Virginia near Roanoke – was going to be phased out after the grand opening of a massive “themed entertainment center” on a 947-acre plot purchased on Route 58 in a no-man’s land between Danville and Martinsville called Axton.
According to Roberts, the gigantic entertainment complex, called “Sugartree” and scheduled for a 1974 opening, would embrace not only a 312-acre theme park, but an 800-room luxury hotel and conference center, an 18-hole par-three championship golf course, a multi-purpose recreation center and a “Sugartree” shopping mall. Campers at a deluxe 1,000-site campground would have access to two swimming pools, tennis courts, picnic areas, a skeet shooting range, hiking and riding trails. He estimated the development would employ 300 full-time employees, and draw 1.8 million paying guests the first year, with an estimated 2 million guests annually after that.
The total 947 acres were purchased from Danville interests for $550,000. The name of the complex was derived from the small community with a church and school built by James F. Turner in 1904 that was located on the Sugartree creek in western Pittsylvania County.
The theme park plans were almost ludicrously over-ambitious. Ride plans included a huge triple-train (!!) racing wooden roller coaster, a 1,200-ft gondola aerial ride (more commonly known as a “Sky Ride”) and two log flume rides, all tied to historical themes and names found in Col. William Byrd’s eighteenth-century explorations of the area. Also included within the park would an antique car ride, a sports car ride, children’s rides, and an observation tower with a glass-enclosed restaurant at the top. A steam railway would surround the entire property.
Live entertainment was to be provided by a sea animal show, a puppet theatre, a children’s amphitheater and an Old Virginia Tavern live show. Food service was to be provided by two cafeterias, four popcorn shops, six hot dog and hamburger stands, four portable drink stations, three candy shops, a seafood inn, and an ice cream and cotton candy shop, all designed to fit the park’s dominant theme yet according to designers, “tastefully constructed to harmonize with the environment.”
The park was an attempt to break away from the old-style amusement parks of the past and embrace the themed Disney model, which had opened near Orlando in October, 1971, and Six Flags over Georgia, which had opened in 1967 just west of Atlanta. Roberts explained that Lakeside, at just 49 acres, was hemmed in by the city and unable to expand, but that the expansive Sugartree was bookended by two major population centers, with anticipated area growth in the succeeding decades. He also added that Sugartree, unlike Lakeside, would charge an initial entry fee with unlimited rides instead of guests having to purchase individual ride tickets.
The huge $35 million development became the talk of Southern Virginia, and speculation – both good and bad – was rampant. With no corporate ownership other than the Lakeside Corp., and without the protective umbrella of a Marriott, Taft, Disney, Six Flags or any other mega-theme park entity, the sheer scope of the project had to be especially daunting to the owners and skeptical to local government officials.
Yet the Lakeside family – comprised of Beverley and William Roberts, Betty Roberts Stanley and James Wilson – plowed full speed ahead, and in the months leading up to the November, 1972 groundbreaking, the park and attraction just seemed to increase in scale to absurd proportions. Updated plans introduced a giant, 150-ft Ferris Wheel, a full-scale replica of a nineteenth-century Virginia town and a 36-gauge “Dick N Willie” railroad. On October 21, Roberts announced that the observation tower and restaurant would be a breathtaking 600-feet tall – only five feet shorter than the Seattle Space Needle, yet still taller than the Washington Monument and almost twice as high as the future Eiffel Tower at Kings Dominion. In fact, it would be the second tallest freestanding structure in the United States.
Unbelievably, the 312 acres of Sugartree park alone was larger than both Disneyworld’s first phase (120 acres), and Six Flags over Georgia (160 acres) combined. Officials also stressed that while the theme park was be a seasonal operation, Sugartree Village and the convention center would be operating year-round.
By August of 1971, Pittsylvania County and Danville realized that the sheer scope of the project and the anticipated influx of visitors was going to have a major and possibly detrimental impact on roads, utilities and infrastructures in a sleepy agriculture area where that was never a concern in the past. The West Piedmont Planning Commission ordered the Department of Highways to “speed up” construction of a $30 million bypass around Martinsville, and to start planning other highway projects as well to cope with the expected arrival of visitors.
But by September, problems started arising. Because the park was nine miles from Danville, water and sewage treatment became a major challenge, to say the least. At one point, the sewage situation became so dire that Lakeside Corp. unsuccessfully tried a lease-purchase arrangement of land closer to Danville to take advantage of city sewage. Also, property owners along Route 58 objected to “strip-zoning” proposals, designed to prevent undesirable development adjacent to the Sugartree property, claiming it would prevent them from realizing full appreciation of their property values.
By January, 1972 rumors swirled of Sugartree’s struggles. The developers cited difficulties working with Pittsylvania County’s newly-elected Board of Supervisors, who they claimed were dragging their feet and not expressing any enthusiasm for the project. They cited that Taft Broadcasting, by contrast, was receiving stellar cooperation from Hanover County for a proposed themed entertainment complex just north of Richmond, to be called Kings Dominion/Lion Country Safari. The Pittsylvania Board, however, noted that despite the recent election they were ready to sit down with Sugartree developers “as soon as possible.”
Then, there was a death in the Roberts family, which complicated Sugartree’s financial arrangements, which had been rather secretive. But the project continued to lurch forward, and just before groundbreaking, attorney and project spokesman Charles Fox III announced major financial backing for Sugartree was being provided by United Virginia Bank, allaying skepticism of a financial hardship. Also, Lakeside announced that former executive with Rives-Brown company, Jim Wilson, was named Sugartree’s operations vice president, and had opened an office in Martinsville February 1.
A formal groundbreaking was held November 17, 1972. The shoveling duties were shared by Lakeside Corp. Chairwoman Betty Stanley, Pittsylvania Board Chairman Calvin Neal and Virginia National Bank vice president G. S. Fitzhugh Jr.
Fox announced just after the groundbreaking that a package sewage treatment plan had finally (after 14 months) been approved with the county and that construction bids would be received in about two weeks. He announced that the Roanoke firm of Hayes, Seay, Mattern & Mattern had been hired as architects and engineers and expected earthmovers on the property literally any day after that. He then boldly projected that the theme park had slated May 1, 1974 as opening day.
The project now looked full speed ahead, but still nothing seemed to happen.
In September, 1973, after almost no activity on the property, Sugartree officials suddenly announced that the grand opening was moved forward almost an entire year, to April, 1975. Russel Bethea, who had been hired as design coordinator, stated that phase one of Sugartree would include a “space needle” observation sphere scaled down from the original (and completely unnecessary) 600-feet to 360-feet. The 150-ft Ferris Wheel was still a go, as was the 36-gauge Dick N Willie Railroad. The roller coaster, however, was scaled back from a triple racing coaster to a double, much like Kings Dominion’s Racer ’75 (Rebel Yell).
Bethea also claimed that grading for the railroad was complete, as was the layout of the coaster. He added that the maintenance building had been constructed, and that grading for the nineteenth-century Virginia town was underway.
In August, 1974, again after very little activity, the Roanoke firm J. M. Turner was hired as the contractor for Sugartree. Then from December 1974 to March, 1975 nothing happened at all. An article in the May 19, 1975 Danville Bee stated that “… something seems to have gone wrong.”
“Why this development, to be called Sugartree, has never developed, is something of a mystery,” wrote reporter John Pancake for the Roanoke World News. “No work has been done on the site in six months and nobody seems to know when work will resume – if ever.”
The article went on to state that the lack of information regarding Sugartree was a standing policy of the directors of the lakeside Corp., who stated that the secretive strategy was adopted after some statements by the board were “misconstrued by reporters.” Beverly Roberts claimed that the board would meet in June, and a statement would be forthcoming.
But Roberts, who was also manager of Lakeside park, stated simply about Sugartree “We’re not working on it now.”
A lone arrow sign on the property read “Lumber receiving for roller coaster.” Only no lumber was visible. It was soon covered by a no trespassing sign.
Perhaps complicating Sugartree’s plans was the May 3 opening of Kings Dominion, 185 miles northeast, in Hanover County, coupled with the May 16 opening of Busch Gardens Williamsburg 230 miles to the east.
By June, 1975 the Sugartree property consisted only of a prefab warehouse, some dirt roads and several huge stacks of whitewashed, treated lumber, to presumably be used on the roller coaster. The remainder of the property was trees and undergrowth.
Rumors that the lumber was going to be sold to Kings Dominion for the construction of their racing coaster was debunked by Jim Figley, director of construction, but he did confide that he had inspected the lumber and considered buying it.
But in the end, Kings Dominion did indeed buy the lumber. It is now part of the structure of “Racer ’75.”
By January, 1976, Sugartree was dead. The developers turned their attentions back to Lakeside park, and it remained open until 1985, when low attendance and the unfortunate accidental death of a landscape worker under the Shooting Star roller coaster ended the park’s 65-year run. The rides were sold, the coaster was demolished, and the property – at the intersection of Route 460 and Electric Avenue – is today the home of a strip mall.
(pictured: in 1975, numerous Carousel horses were stolen from Lakeside Park. They were later found along a nearby road.)
Meanwhile, over in Axton, the forgotten memory of Sugartree is the home of Lake Sugar Tree Motorsports Park. Be sure also to visit the Rock House convenience store next door, for the best sandwiches in Pittsylvania County.