Theme park in Central PA subject of panel discussion
LHU hosts rep from famous park in France
By AMY KNARR
For The Express
Can Central Pennsylvania, with all of its history and scenic beauty, support a history-based theme park?
That was part of the impetus for a special forum and panel discussion last Thursday at Lock Haven University.
Among the special guests was a representative of Puy du Fou, a historical, medieval-theme park in Les Epesses in Western France that attracts more than 2 million visitors per year, making it the second most popular theme park in France after Disneyland Paris
Guillaume Ingrand of Puy du Fou flew to Pennsylvania from France at LHU’s invite and participated in a panel discussion that also included Christopher Salerno from Kennywood Park outside Pittsburgh, Julia Chain from Preservation Pennsylvania and Dennis Greenaway, a local Medieval re-enactor, among others.
Together and with a large, enthusiastic audience at LHU’s Durrwachter Alumni Conference Center, they discussed the feasibility of developing a theme park here based on Pennsylvania’s resources, history and industry.
The visit was inspired by Dr. Gerard Martorell, assistant professor of Entrepreneurship and International Business at LHU’s Stephen Poorman College of Business.
A native of France, Martorell grew up near the park built in 1977 and said he has long enjoyed and admired the attraction.
“The park has a bird show with a Bald Eagles and more, a medieval town with shops, craftspeople and a Viking ship, hotels and a Roman camp that you can sleep in a tent if you wish. In 2018 there was a reenactment of a World War I battle to commemorate the 100 year anniversary,” Martorell told The Express.
And there is much more, for instance a coliseum, four-horse chariot races and gladiator battles.
Martorell was so stricken with the similarities between the French countryside where Puy du Fou is located and Clinton County that he personally wrote to Philippe de Villiers Jr., founder of Puy du Fou in France, to inquire about the possibility of representatives of the theme park visiting Lock Haven University to discuss this area as a possible site of a similar theme park.
He was pleasantly surprised to receive a positive answer.
Martorell is so passionate about the venture that he drove to New York City to pick up the Puy du Fou representatives at the airport and drive them to Lock Haven for the meetings and forum.
The forum was organized and chaired by Dr. John Nauright, dean of the Stephen Poorman College of Business.
“Lock Haven University is excited to connect our history and heritage to the world and bring the world to Lock Haven to grow our community and economy,” said Nauright.
The evening began with short promotional videos from Kennywood; Preservation PA; Pennsic Wars, a pre- 17th century re-enactment, and Puy du Fou.
Each panelist then answered questions relative to their expertise.
Salerno from Kennywood explained the importance of innovation and the connection to the community in the longevity of Kennywood Park, which has been in operation for over 120 years, even during economic down-times in Pittsburgh, including the Great Depression.
“Pittsburghers are traditionalists. Two things that have kept Kennywood in business are a connection to community and innovation. Keep the old rides, but keep on innovating,” Salerno said.
The recent additions of Thomas Town, based on Thomas the Train, and Steelers Country, based on the beloved Pittsburgh Steelers, has been instrumental in a resurgence of Kennywood’s popularity, drawing people from further away than ever, he said.
He also stressed the idea that people often relocate or stay located in an area with a successful attraction.
Ingrand was asked how historical events would interest park attendees.
Martorell translated Ingrand’s responses.
He said the idea of Puy du Fou was “History Waits for You” and the spectacular shows, shops, restaurants and other themed attractions at the park in France immerse the patrons in the action in a way that no museum could.
“Puy du Fou started as a small venue as any village might have, but has expanded to now attract 2.3 million visitors each year,” Ingrand told the audience in French.
It has grown the region economically through visitors, the employment of construction workers, actors, craftspeople and other skilled workers.
Indeed, Ingrand said, Puy du Fou has been an economic boon to businesses located just outside of the park in Western France.
“It is now a very active region,” he commented.
Chain stressed the use of old buildings to bring history alive because “they tell you a story.”
In fact, Puy du Fou was founded at the site of the ruins of an old renaissance castle in the village of Les Epesses near Cholet in France.
She explained that so much can be learned from the interiors of old buildings and how one small project can be connected to another small project to develop a large attraction.
Greenaway, dressed in chain mail and other period clothing, mentioned that often a taste of history can encourage a person to become interested in many aspects of an era, skills and crafts, lifestyles and everyday life.
Historical theme parks are excellent draws for families with children and school trips.
He cited many such attractions in which he has had an active part, and his enthusiasm and knowledge of history is contagious.
“We are centrally located to large cities and close to Routes 80, 220 and 15,” Greenaway noted.
Questions from the audience included how such parks obtain funding.
The founder of Puy du Fou declined and continues to refuse government funding because of the restrictions that would place on innovations at the park.
Funding could possibly be had from corporate sponsors, small grants and personal donations.
Tax credits and revenue would further the economic success after the park would be in place.
Jeff Parks, author of “Stronger Than Steel,” a book about the renaissance of Bethlehem, Pa., gave closing remarks that amounted to an enthusiastic pep talk.
He encouraged the panel to come up with ideas, stated that creativity draws people, and assured that funding will follow the ideas.
About the idea of such a park in this region, Martorell said discussions “are just in the preliminary phases.”
“We must now go step by step building trust among LHU, our community and the Puy du Fou,” he said. “Digesting this first meeting and developing a common vision for the future is now key. We will most probably have another meeting in the spring to set further developments. A project like this is a team effort marathon that may last four to five years. We believe we have huge assets that can help us reach the goal but we must be cautious, stay focused, and keep on pushing at all times. The reward is worth the effort.”
After the forum, Nauright, with help from Parks and Chain, launched Lock Haven University’s Cultural Heritage Management Program, which will work with partners in Pennsylvania and beyond, including Puy du Fou.
Martorell made a reference to the Woolrich Woolen Mill that stores some of the National Museum of Industrial History goods.
“This is different from the Puy du Fou. However, both share the idea of taking profit of our heritage and make it viable. That is why we invited curators from that museum along with Preservation PA and Jeffrey Parks from the Pennsylvania Council on the Arts.
“In this case, again, we are just in the preliminary phases. Nothing has been decided yet,” Martorell said.