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FREDERICKSBURG >> City officials, staff visiting Sandusky Ohio officials say there's no downside to water-park resort IT'S COLD OUTSIDE, BUT IT'S WARM, WELCOMING INSIDE THE KALAHARI
City Council visits Kalahari resort in Ohio

 Kalahari Resorts President Todd Nelson (left) talks with Fredericksburg Mayor Tom Tomzak yesterday.
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Date published: 1/5/2008

ERIE COUNTY, Ohio--Todd Nelson seems to revel in the gamesmanship of trying to stay one step ahead of his competitors.

He is continually expanding and improving his two Kalahari Resorts water-park hotels in Wisconsin Dells, Wis., and Sandusky, Ohio.

He says every time he builds, he builds one level better, and when he begins work in a few months on the $200 million resort he plans for Fredericksburg's Celebrate Virginia complex, it will be his best yet.

Take the coffee shop in the Sandusky Kalahari, for example.

Instead of just a place to get sugar-laden mochas with whipped cream, Nelson wants the coffee shop in the Fredericksburg Kalahari to roast its own beans, bake its own bread, make pasta and teach cooking classes.

He's going to take things to a whole new level, he told City Council members on a tour of his resort yesterday.

Nelson likes the mantra, of go big or go home, but he's been known to focus just as much on the little details of his resorts, like picking a stray gum wrapper up off the floor before a guest sees it.

He is high-energy, detail-oriented, and, according to most of the Erie County officials who spoke to City Council members yesterday, he's able to back up his big words with action.

"Everything Todd Nelson told me when I first met him, he's done. He spent more money than he told me he was going to spend, and he's been first class," said Mark Litten, executive director of the Greater Erie County Marketing Group.

That's a message Fredericksburg City Council members and city staff have heard repeatedly since they arrived at the Sandusky Kalahari Thursday night.

They're here to see the resort and try to gauge its impact on local government services.

They're also still negotiating the terms of an incentives deal that helped lure Kalahari to Fredericksburg, along with the performance agreement that governs those incentives.

Over the past two days, Nelson has given the Fredericksburg delegation the hard sell on why Kalahari will be good for Fredericksburg.

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Driving down U.S. 250 in Erie County, Ohio, you see agricultural fields all around, and then a bright sign rises out of nowhere.

It looks like a giant TV screen showing images of kids playing on water slides.

This is the Kalahari Resort just outside Sandusky, Ohio. On Thursday afternoon, the giant marquee read, "Welcome, Fredericksburg, Va." as four City Council members and 10 city staff members arrived for a two-day visit to the resort that has plans to build in Celebrate Virginia.

The two vans of city officials drove down a snow-lined driveway to be greeted by bellmen clad in safari gear. The hotel lobby they entered was like a busy intersection, where families and kids wearing swimsuits and flip-flops crossed paths with hotel staff.

African decor was everywhere, and wildlife experts let tourists pet a baby lion and kangaroo in one corner.

The African theme runs throughout the 884-room resort and 95,000-square-foot conference center. But it's not there to distract you from noticing shortcomings in service and quality.

Rooms here are outfitted with flat-screen televisions. Suites have full-size kitchen appliances. It's hard to find food on Sandusky's chain-heavy U.S. 250 corridor that rivals the creations of the chefs at Kalahari.

This is a nice hotel, not some dump dressed up with bamboo mats and pictures of elephants.

The conference center draws a steady flow of state associations, corporate clients and religious groups. This year, they'll host groups from Bristol Myers Squibb, Edward Jones, Pfizer and others.

From the lobby, windows look out onto the newly expanded, 173,000-square-foot indoor water park, which Kalahari says is the largest in the country.

While temperatures in Sandusky hover in the teens and lower 20s this time of year, the air inside the water park is in the 80s and 90s.

But don't think being inside will keep you from getting a suntan. The new addition has a high-tech roofing system that lets in enough UV light to give you some color.

Kalahari President Todd Nelson said he plans to install this same kind of roof in the resort he plans for Fredericksburg.