Wednesday, July 1, 2009

Neverland attraction could challenge ag land's primacy : Supervisor says temporary permits closer to a post-Jackson reality at ranch


June 30, 2009 7:00 AM

Santa Barbara County Supervisor Doreen Farr, who represents the district where the sprawling Figueroa Mountain Road property is located, said Monday that the 2,800 acres of land is zoned agriculture -- and because the county is so protective of its ag land, granting a permit to honor the King of Pop in the style that Memphis, Tenn., does for the King of Rock 'n' Roll could take quite a while.

That is if it happens at all.

A more likely scenario, said Mrs. Farr, who described herself as a great fan of Mr. Jackson's, is for the ranch's new owner, Colony Capital LLC, to secure permits for two- or three-day events at the ranch.

Questions about what might happen to the property started the day after the 50-year-old's death, when Tom Barrack, Colony's chairman, posted on his blog: "Neverland itself is now a mythical sanctuary to Michael and we are doing our best to accommodate the throngs of global press and fans arriving there to express their grief."

Then on Saturday, the News-Press was on hand when members of the Jackson family arrived at Neverland -- which, upon Colony's acquisition late last year reverted to its original name, Sycamore Valley Ranch -- for a catered lunch that followed a morning meeting in Los Angeles reportedly focusing on Mr. Jackson's final resting place.

Some have said that should be Neverland.

Speaking to reporters in Solvang, Mrs. Farr said she is not aware of anyone at the county level being contacted about his being laid to rest there. She further explained that such issues are a state matter.

As for whether she'd be in favor of a Neverland tourist spot, Mrs. Farr would not say.

"It would be premature to talk about it."

Since his death June 25, some have wondered whether the future would hold for Mr. Jackson what it held for Elvis Presley, whose only daughter, Lisa Marie, for a time was married to Mr. Jackson: interment at a place he called home.

Graceland, in Memphis, is where Elvis is buried.

Some say Neverland could be the King of Pop's Graceland.

Each year, fans of Mr. Presley undertake massive pilgrimages to Graceland on the anniversaries of his death and his birthday.

If activity at Mr. Jackson's final resting place parallels Mr. Presley's, tourists could descend on Los Olivos and the surrounding area on the King of Pop's birthday, August 29, and the anniversary of his death, June 25.

Tourism officials and some businesses say such a burial for Mr. Jackson at the ranch so long known as Neverland would result in a boom for the tourism in nearby Los Olivos.

"If open to the public, it would certainly become a popular tourist attraction, as Graceland is in Memphis and the Père Lachaise Cemetery is in Paris," said Shannon Brooks of the Santa Barbara Conference & Visitors Bureau and Film Commission.

"Whether or not Michael Jackson is actually buried at Neverland, the property will be a destination for fans seeking a way to connect with him and pay their respects," she said.

Mary Harris, the executive director of the Santa Ynez Valley Visitors Association released a statement Monday that they "are not involved in plans for Neverland Ranch and respect the privacy of the Jackson family."

Los Olivos businesses could reap the benefits of a Graceland-style attraction.

"Michael Jackson is a phenomenon throughout the world," said Z Darghali, who manages the R Country Market on Grand Avenue. "It would be a hundred times the tourism that it is now."

Still, a boon could prove bittersweet.

"It would be good for business, although I hate to see it come from a situation like that," said Mr. Darghali.

Brooke Jones, a store retailer at Back at the Ranch on Edison Street, said she sees such an attraction as a boon.

"The more people up here, the better business would be," she said.

Not everyone who runs a business in the area is so confident in Neverland's draw.

Chuck Carlson, winemaker general manager at Curtis Winery on Foxen Canyon Road is an example.

"I don't think (business) is going to be affected much at all, to be honest," he said. "I think people who are coming to view something like that, we might get some of them, but I don't think they're going to make that part of their destination."

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