Former Scuttle’s Island developer Benjamin Bell apparently has two major talents.
The first is getting a community worked up and eagerly anticipating the construction of a proposed multi-million dollar water park.
The second is telling a sob story.
More than a year ago, Scuttle’s Island water park was initially sold as a major economic boost for Columbia County.
It was promoted as a $20 million dollar water park to be built in Grovetown featuring 20 water slides, a lazy river, a water playground and a 55,000-square-foot wave pool.
Bell, the then-owner of the popular Christmas attraction Lights of the South on Louisville Road, told Columbia County officials that the water park would bring almost 300,000 people to the county each summer.
The public was thrilled.
Columbia County Commission Chairman Ron Cross described it as a “huge asset” that would only benefit the area.
But attitudes quickly changed as county officials began requesting more specific plans regarding the water park.
All of a sudden, Bell started complaining about constant “roadblocks” by the county in trying to get the water park approved and built during the spring of 2015.
“The water park is already so far down the road,” Bell said last year. “We’ve already got the slides coming. We’ve engineered everything. It is ready to build right now. And it should be opened this year in Columbia County, but it’s not.”
Bell insisted that he had provided the county all the information it needed to get the project off the ground, but county officials denied those claims.
Specifically, some of the rezoning items the county requested included certain site plan requirements, the need for a comprehensive traffic impact study and the proposed plan for the paving of the parking lots on the 113-acre site located along Louisville Road.
The county kept waiting for Bell to present those items, but the plans never came. Instead, Bell was telling the public that he was doing all he could to work with the county officials, but the county was the one standing in the way of the project.
“We started the rezoning process back in September of last year when we announced the water park,” Bell said in 2015. “From then until March 1, we were still turning in document after document to the county to satisfy their requests. They said, ‘This project is too big. It is a regional project. People will be coming from 100 miles away.’ Which they will. I understand that, so we did more rezoning and I tried everything I could to work with them.”
But by early March 2015, less than a week before Bell’s scheduled March 5 meeting before the Columbia County Planning Commission, he received an email detailing all the additional requirements the county was requesting for the proposed water park.
“It was nine pages long and included items I had never heard of since we started in September,” Bell told the Metro Spirit in 2015. “It was all brand new stuff they were requiring.”
Bell asked the planning commission for an extension in order to meet the county’s additional requests.
According to Bell, while he was trying to meet the county’s requirements regarding the water park, county officials began focusing on his other business, Lights of the South.
About 75 residents attended a March 2015 planning commission to voice their growing concerns about traffic congestion and infrastructure problems that the new water park might create for some of the residents living near the Lights of the South property.
As the April 2015 meeting quickly approached, Bell said he soon learned some of the required documents and plans that the county was requesting for the rezoning of the water park could take more than six months to receive.
“At that point, we thought it was best to totally withdraw our rezoning request,” Bell said.
However, to Bell’s surprise, his request was denied.
“We were shocked,” Bell told the Metro Spirit in 2015. “I can’t tell you how frustrating it’s been for us.”
A few days later, Bell began telling another sob story to the media.
He explained that when he went down to renew the Lights of the South’s business license in April, the county initially gave him the license but then tried to take it back.
“They called me up and said, ‘You weren’t supposed to get that. We want you to return it and we’ll send you a refund,’” Bell told the Metro Spirit last year.
According to the county’s development services director, Paul Scarbary, his department decided to temporarily suspend the Lights of the South’s business license until after the rezoning issues were addressed by the Columbia County Board of Commissioners.
“We’ve been doing Lights of the South for more than a decade,” Bell said. “All we want to do is build a water park. We will go through the process. We’ll do what we have to do. But, now, they are also attacking Lights of the South. That’s where it’s rubbing me the wrong way. Because I had to rezone for the water park, that also pulled Lights of the South into the picture.”
In essence, Bell felt like the county was trying to shut him completely down by also adding additional restrictions to Lights of the South.
“If you go to change the zoning on the property, that removes all of the things that were grandfathered in originally for Lights of the South,” Bell said, adding that the county suggested that he must pave the gravel parking lots on the site, which will cost around $600,000. “Even though the gravel parking lots were approved in 2005, 2007, 2008, now they want to me to go back and pave those two parking lots. That is a tremendous cost for us.”
All of a sudden, the story was more about Bell versus Columbia County instead of the possibility of a $20 million water park.
And Bell’s “David versus Goliath” tale played very well in the public eye.
When citizens heard of Bell’s troubles with the county, many felt it was a good example of the local government trying to stomp on the rights of a private businessman.
Some residents even held a rally outside the Columbia County Commission’s chamber in support of Lights of South.
In fact, “Santa Claus” attended the protest to voice his objections to the county’s actions after a campaign on social media tried to paint each commissioner as Ebenezer Scrooge.
The issue became even more personal to local residents after Bell told the media that the only way he could reasonably afford some of the requested improvements, such as paving the parking lots, was if he raised Light of the South’s ticket prices.
“Since we opened 10 years ago, children 3 and under have gotten in free,” Bell said. “The price for children 4 to 17 is $5.95 and adults are only $8.95. And I give out hundreds of free tickets each year. Honestly, it has never been about making money. Sure. We do okay, but it’s not like we are charging $20 a person or something. And I don’t want to.”
Bell told the public he simply wanted to keep the tradition of Lights of the South going for future generations.
“All I’m asking is for the county to leave Lights of the South alone,” Bell said. “It’s rustic. We like it rustic. We have a gravel parking lot. We have old buildings. It is not Disney at all and we don’t want it to be. It has got just a little country charm. And we think people like the fact that it is so simple.”
But what Bell never seemed to be able to grasp was the fact that he had proposed building an enormous, 45-acre water park on property that couldn’t possibly remain “rustic.”
It would be impractical, especially if he really expected to draw hundreds of thousands of people to the water park each summer.
Columbia County Commissioner Trey Allen tried to explain to Bell during the public meeting last year that the county was simply trying to protect local residents and visitors to the park.
“Like every other business in Columbia County, no more or less, we will require the same stipulations for this business as any other in order to grant that rezoning and get an occupational license,” Columbia County Commissioner Trey Allen stated.
As a result, Bell told the media that he planned to take the water park elsewhere.
“Columbia County is not going to stop us. We are building the water park,” Bell said in 2015. “We may not be able to build it right on the Lights of the South property, but we are definitely building that water park within a few miles from here. We already have another county who is actually extremely nice to us and hasn’t slammed every door in our faces.”
He assured the public that the new site would be the perfect location for Scuttle’s Island.
“The joke is, this new county said if we have to do a traffic study, they’ll actually pay for it. That’s straight from the lips of another county,” Bell said, laughing. “That’s the difference in the cooperation we are getting with this new county compared to Columbia County. This new county is going to help us anyway it can.”
In fact, Bell began to promote the idea that Columbia County’s loss was another county’s gain.
“We thought we would have been welcomed with open arms in Columbia County, but it’s been the opposite,” Bell said, adding he was happy to take the business elsewhere. “Sure, I have to buy another 100 acres somewhere else. It’s an expense I wasn’t counting on, but I’m willing to do it because it’s clear, somebody in Columbia County doesn’t want us here. And that’s fine. We will take the water park to another county that is more than happy to have us. One that wants to work with us, not against us. It’s that simple.”
And which local municipality was the lucky recipient of the proposed $20 million water park?
Good ol’ North Augusta.
Last September, Bell once again stood before an entire community, alongside Andrew Thompson of the local investment group Cedar Rock Holdings LLC, and announced his plans to build a new 40-acre water park in North Augusta by Memorial Day weekend of this year.
Bell boasted that the water park would be home to the “tallest water slide in the Southeast.”
“It is exciting to see an economic development recreational project of this magnitude come to our city,” North Augusta Mayor Lark Jones said following the water park announcement in September. “This will be something that families from across the Southeast will be able to enjoy for generations to come.”
Bell and Thompson pledged to the public that they would build a $21.5 million project off Interstate 20, at exit 5 in North Augusta.
However, as weeks quickly turned into months following Bell’s initial announcement in North Augusta, the public soon realized something was wrong.
There was absolutely no physical movement on the project, which was scheduled to open by May of this year.
Members of the media, including the Metro Spirit, were constantly calling Scott Sterling, director of North Augusta’s Department of Planning and Development, to ask if the Scuttle’s Island developers had submitted any plans for the project.
“No, they have not,” Sterling said. “I have not heard anything about it.”
North Augusta Mayor Lark Jones was also kept in the dark about the water park’s plans.
“I don’t have any news on Scuttle’s Island as to if or when they may apply for approval,” he told the Metro Spirit a few months ago.
And where was Bell during all of this confusion and debate over the proposed water park?
The Metro Spirit tried several times to contact Bell, but he could not be reached for comment. Several local television stations also attempted to contact Bell, but he did not respond.
All of sudden, the man who was more than happy to talk to the local media when his license for Lights of South was in jeopardy, was completely silent.
The only person who still seemed to have complete faith in the proposed water park was North Augusta’s city administrator Todd Glover.
“According to the developers, they told me everything is still moving along very nicely,” Glover told the Metro Spirit last fall. “At this point, I can say the water park is going to happen. It is just a question of when.”
But the public was not so sure.
Finally, this past week, local citizens got some answers.
Thompson, speaking on behalf of Cedar Rock Holdings LLC, held a press conference last Thursday to announce that the opening date for the water park had been pushed back until at least June.
That wasn’t all the bad news.
Thompson also announced that Cedar Rock Holdings had severed all of its ties with Bell.
And not just with Scuttle’s Island project, but also with the Lights of the South attraction.
Cedar Rock Holdings reportedly owns both businesses now and Bell is out of the picture.
So, what in the world happened?
Apparently, Bell had been investigated by the Columbia County Sheriff’s Office in November after he was accused of writing four bad checks totaling more than $88,000.
Fortunately for Bell, no charges were filed against him because he ended up dealing with the banks privately.
However, according to a recent news report by WJBF News Channel 6, Bell has additional financial headaches in Columbia County.
“His banks were seeking garnishments from him in 2013 totaling hundreds of thousand of dollars,” WJBF reported this past week, referring to Bell. “Contractors were also looking for money. All of these items are connected to his business and his home in Evans.”
Bell’s ex-wife is claiming he also owes her more than $400,000.
Now, with Bell off the project, the big question still remains: Will North Augusta ever see the construction and opening of Scuttle’s Island?
Thompson insists it will happen.
“For the 10 people of the CSRA who make up Cedar Rock Holdings… we are too far down the road not to make it to our destination,” Thompson told The Augusta Chronicle last week. “We have not stopped. We are not going to stop. We are going to continue to move forward to bring this to the community.”
But as the public has watched numerous problems flow from this proposed project over the past few months, many people are becoming more and more skeptical about its future.
The city of North Augusta and its residents can only hope that Cedar Rock Holdings will be able pick up the pieces and get the ball rolling on this water park.
Otherwise, this project is dead in the water.