Vinita theme park
Slated as the first phase of the $2.5 billion American Heartland Theme Park, the Three Ponies RV Park and Campground broke ground just east of Vinita, Oklahoma, on Monday, Oct. 30, 2023. (Michael McNutt)

As Missouri-based Mansion Entertainment Group attempts to tweak the design of the $2 billion American Heartland Theme Park and Resort it has proposed near Vinita, a Canadian firm hired to design the massive project has filed a lien claiming it is owed nearly $5.5 million from unpaid invoices. The filing comes as the Oklahoma Legislature continues to consider a $35 million request from the City of Vinita for water infrastructure upgrades to accommodate the project.

FORREC, with headquarters in Toronto, Canada, filed a mechanic and materialsmen lien Friday in Craig County District Court claiming it has not received payment on design work and planning for the American Heartland Theme Park and Resort, as well as its associated Three Ponies RV Park and Campground. A materialman’s lien is basically a mechanics lien for material suppliers that provides them with a security interest in the real estate on which a project takes place.

Also named in the claim against Mansion Entertainment is OGB Holdings, which is identified in documents as owning the real property and premises of both the theme park and RV campground. OGB Holdings is either a subsidiary of or controlled by a subsidiary of Mansion Entertainment, according to court papers.

The 1,000-acre theme park is scheduled to open in 2026 and the RV campground has been proposed for completion next year. A groundbreaking for the 320-acre RV campground was held in November, but little work has been done since.

About two weeks before the claim was filed, top officials with Mansion Entertainment appeared April 16 before the Vinita City Council to give an update on both projects. Company representatives said delays have been caused by a change in designs, such as increasing the planned 300-room hotel to 400 rooms and changing the sizes of the planned 750 RV spaces. The cost of the projects also has increased, from $2 billion to $2.5 billion.

Asked if Mansion Entertainment still planned to open the theme park in 2026, senior executive vice president of marketing Kristy Adams said the company is “working on a new timetable.”

“We’re confident with the team that we have, if we get rolling, that we can still produce the park in time,” she said. “So, and I know that’s an optimistic approach, but we do have a world-class team together. (…) We always said we were going to open in 2026, so probably later in 2026, but yeah, we haven’t announced any delays.”

Adams told NonDoc in an email Tuesday that Mansion Entertainment officials are not granting interviews currently, but she did offer an explanation for the delay in work on the RV park and campground.

“At this point the RV park is running behind schedule due to a redesign of the initial footprint,” she said. “We are compressing the RV park to get out of the [Federal Emergency Management Agency] flood plan. We did that by subdividing some of the RV spaces from 80 feet to 40 feet. We will still have 750 RV spaces and 300 cabins. This will also allow us additional time to work with FEMA on getting the flood plan resurveyed for a possible expansion later.”

Meanwhile, the lien was filed against Mansion Entertainment just as legislators at the Oklahoma State Capitol are deciding whether to provide up to $35 million to the City of Vinita for installation of water lines and wastewater services to the planned theme park and RV campground. In October, the city annexed several miles of land east of Vinita encompassing both ventures.

House Bill 3854 would create a narrowly tailored program to reimburse a city between 5,000 and 7,000 residents for water and sewer infrastructure investments made to support either theme parks or RV parks. The bill won passage in both the House of Representatives and the Senate, but the Senate added amendments, which the House rejected. That means the measure must go to a conference committee if it is to advance.

Sen. Micheal Bergstrom (R-Adair) said Tuesday he was unaware of the lien filed against Mansion Entertainment last week but that it would not adversely affect the $35 million legislative request.

Mansion Entertainment responds to $5.5 million claim

From left, Kristy Adams, Mansion Entertainment senior executive vice president of marketing, Steve Hedrik, Mansion Entertainment’s executive producer of project development, and American Heartland theme park founder Gene Bicknell talk to media during the groundbreaking for Three Ponies RV Park and Campground in Vinita, Oklahoma, on Monday, Oct. 30, 3023. (Michael McNutt)

Based in Canada, FORREC’s clients include Universal Studios, LEGOLAND, Nickelodeon, BBC Worldwide and Six Flags, as well as international companies that operate theme and water parks.

The company stated in its claim that it has not been paid about $5.4 million to cover work it completed for Mansion Entertainment Group on Jan. 8. The claim also states that interest is accruing at the rate of 1 percent for each 30-day period that the account is delinquent through. Through April 29, that interest equaled $235,367, bringing the total claim to nearly $5.6 million.

Asked to respond to the lien, Mansion Entertainment released a statement attributed to Gene Bicknell, the American Heartland Theme Park’s founder and chief creative officer. A former Pizza Hut franchise mogul who prevailed in a high-profile tax dispute with the state of Kansas, Bicknell was born in nearby Picher, a town abandoned as a mining-related superfund site 35 miles northeast of Vinita.

“We are aware of the lien filed in Craig County and regret we were not able to come to an agreement with the party,” Bicknell said. “It is Mansion Entertainment’s policy not to pay for work until it has been submitted and a comprehensive review of the work has been performed. As of today, such a review has not been scheduled. We continue to move forward and work to rectify this situation as soon as possible.”

FORREC’s claim featured 258 pages of information, most of which listed work and expenses associated with developing designs for the theme park, hotel, water park and campground. Some items date back to July, but most of the work listed occurred between October and January.

The claim identifies the projects as Lazy Hawk Lake theme park land, Lazy Hawk hotel and indoor water park and Lazy Hawk Resort. Adams told NonDoc that during the initial stages of the project, Mansion referred to it as Lazy Hawk to keep the American Heartland name confidential until the project was announced in July.

Broken down, FORREC claims the money owed for each project is:

  • $1.6 million for the theme park;
  • $2.2 million for the hotel and indoor water park; and
  • $1.5 million for the RV campground.

Emails and phone calls to FORREC were not returned by the time this article was published.


American Heartland theme park

‘Believe it when I see it’: State funds eyed to support huge theme park plan near Vinita by Michael McNutt

Dennis Speigel, the founder and CEO of Cincinnati-based International Theme Park Services, Inc., previously expressed skepticism about the viability of the American Heartland proposal. Asked about the new lien, Speigel said his company does similar work as FORREC.

“We’re paid on a progress basis as we do the work, OK?” he said. “So, I would say they’re behind on their bills, their payments, and this comes as no surprise.”

Speigel said the lien should be a red flag for public officials who are being asked to support the project.

“I hate to see the governments and the local communities and people spend a lot of money and get behind this because it’s just not realistic. It just won’t work there, OK?” Speigel said. “I’ve done this all my life. I’ve worked on over 500 projects, domestically and internationally, some of the biggest in the world from the biggest companies. And we do feasibility studies all the time, and we know the market. It just isn’t there.”

‘There’s a lot of false information that circulates around the park’

Mayor Josh Lee invited top-level members of Mansion Entertainment to attend the April 16 Vinita City Council meeting to address the delay in construction at the Three Rivers RV Park and Campground.

“Some of you may have noticed that the RV park is lagging a little behind, and that’s my fault, I’m sorry,” said Steve Hedrik, American Heartland executive producer of project development. “I asked the designers to compress the RV park. We still have 750 RV spaces and 300 cabins, but I wanted to get out of the floodplain, the FEMA floodplain, what I call in the south 40. It’s probably only 20 acres, but I wanted to get out of that area, and I challenged them to compress it. Some of our RV spaces were 80 feet long, which is excessive, so I asked them to subdivide those and (…) surprisingly enough, the smaller you make it, the more affordable it is.”

The floodplain eventually could be an expansion area to add more RV spaces on the southern part of the land, he said. He said designers also were asked to expand the planned resort from 300 to 400 rooms.

“The more capacity we have in the theme park and the RV park and the cabins, the better experience people will have when they come to this theme park and resort,” Hedrick told the council. “And guess what? If you can give them a place to stay, they’ll stay longer, and they’ll spend more money, and they’ll buy gas at the gas station, and they’ll go to the grocery store, and they’ll go to the bank that’s going to be built across the street. So it’s a way of making it bigger, better, less expensive, which is what I’m supposed to do.”

Adams, Mansion Entertainment’s executive vice president of marketing, told council members that company officials appreciated their patience and confidence.

“I know sometimes it feels like we’re holding back information, but we want to give you real information,” she said. “So, as we all know, there’s a lot of false information that circulates around the park, around our company, around us, everything. But our goal is always to provide information as we have it when we’re 100 percent positive. So the delay is not intentional. It’s just we want to give you facts that we can deliver.”

Larry Wilhite, Mansion Entertainment’s chief operating officer, reassured the council that the theme park, resort and RV campground will become a reality.

“On behalf of Mr. Bicknell, he sends his regards and to let everyone know that this is still happening,” Wilhite said. “He’s going to see it through. He’s going to be at the ribbon cutting, and we’re excited to do that, and thank you, thank you, Vinita, for accepting us and allowing us to be in your community, and we look forward to the future in a mighty way. So thank you very much.”

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Fate of $35 million rebate measure to Vinita uncertain

Sen. Micheal Bergstrom (R-Adair) speaks on the Oklahoma State Senate floor Tuesday, April 25, 2023. (Michael Duncan)

At the State Capitol, HB 3854 passed the House 69-17 in March but failed a Senate floor vote 21-22 a month later. But Bergstrom, the Senate author, called for reconsideration the next day, April 25, and was able to win passage 27-18. An emergency clause, which would have made the measure effective immediately if it were signed into law by the governor, failed 10-33. The measure is now awaiting a conference committee and would need to pass both chambers again by May 31 once new language is revealed.

As originally proposed, the bill would create an investment rebate program for water and wastewater infrastructure investments in small cities with a population between 5,00 and 7,000 people. The Oklahoma Department of Commerce would administer the applications and approve or disapprove rebate claims from the newly created Water Infrastructure for Economic Development Fund. To qualify, a city must have at least $35 million in planned infrastructure expenditures that will be necessary to provide services for a newly established RV park and campground that has a capital investment greater than $100 million. The city must also have spent at least 20 percent of the total planned expenditures to receive rebates.

“The only community that currently meets these guidelines is Vinita in northeast Oklahoma where the Three Ponies RV Park and Campground with 300 cabins has broken ground and where the American Heartland Theme Park and 400-room hotel are soon to break ground as well,” Bergstrom said on the Senate floor April 25. “So far, over $100 million has been invested in the overall project. Another $100 million is budgeted for the Three Ponies RV Park and Campground alone, which is going in first so that there is housing for the workers who will be building the amusement park.”

Bergstrom said the City of Vinita would have to spend its own money on the water and wastewater infrastructure before it could receive reimbursement from the state. Estimated cost of the work is about $32 million, he said.

“This is for the city’s infrastructure only, not for the project itself,” he said. “In addition to that, the city must pass a [Tax Increment Finance district] or they cannot take advantage of this rebate.”

Senate Minority Leader Kay Floyd (D-OKC) debated against HB 3854, calling it a special bill for one particular city and questioning the certainty of the projects.

“It looks like the only thing that’s guaranteed is the $30 million that’s going to go into the water and wastewater infrastructure for this small city and in the state,” she said. “And while I can understand wanting to invest in business, as we’ve all known and learned from our transparent and open budget process, we have hundreds and hundreds and hundreds of cities and towns in this state with high needs for a sure thing as opposed to the building of a theme park. I do not believe this is a good investment of our money.”

Sen. Julie Daniels (R-Bartlesville) initially voted against HB 3854 but changed her mind the next day, arguing that the American Heartland theme park would be a great benefit to the entire region.

“I know that the investment they are making is great, and so for me this is much more than just an investment in the infrastructure to an RV park in one small community,” she said. “This is going to change economic development and prosperity for this entire region and so, even though it is an unusual ask, it is a rebate. There is money already invested (…). It looks very much like to me that this project is going to go forward.”

Bergstrom said the Mansion Entertainment projects present a game-changing opportunity for Vinita and the entire state.

“Just the park itself and the Three Ponies RV Park and Campground will create 2,300 full-time jobs in tourism and hospitality, and that doesn’t include the part-time employees or the employees of the complementary businesses that are going to and have already purchased property near the park and are making plans to build there as well,” he said. “To make all this happen, there must be water and wastewater service provided by the city of Vinita.”

But with the Oklahoma Legislature stuck in a budget battle, every pending legislative proposal faces an uncertain future.

Sen. Chuck Hall (R-Perry), chairman of the Senate Appropriations and Budget Committee, said Wednesday that HB 3854 will face further review as the Senate seeks a total $125 million appropriation to the Oklahoma Water Resources Board for projects statewide.

“It’s hard to know at this point,” Hall told NonDoc. “It’s like I was discussing earlier, those [Progressing Rural Economic Prosperity] projects, particularly as it relates to water, are all going to be looked at. And then it becomes incumbent on the Senate and the House, quite frankly, to determine need and start to prioritize those needs.”

HB 3854’s advancement in the Senate came about one week before FORREC filed its $5.5 million lien against Mansion Entertainment and its property-holding subsidiary.

Asked if Vinita and Oklahoma lawmakers had been told of the claim, Adams said Wednesday that they were.

“Mansion Entertainment Group is continuing to engage with local and state leaders to make sure funding is available to make this project a success,” she said. “They were notified of the lien and our statement at the time of filing. We continue to move forward and work to rectify this situation as soon as possible.”

But Bergstrom told NonDoc on Tuesday that he was unaware of the claim.

“I know nothing about it,” he said.

Hall likewise had not heard about the claim against Mansion Entertainment.

“No, it’s the first time I’ve heard of it,” he said Wednesday.

On Monday, Gov. Kevin Stitt said he was unaware of the $5.5 million claim against Mansion Entertainment.

“I haven’t, but we will check into that,” he said. “We would not be for funding anything that’s not going forward.”

Stitt expressed caution about the theme park proposal.

“It’s a weird deal,” he said.

Lee, Vinita’s mayor, has been an enthusiastic supporter of Mansion Entertainment’s projects, but he did not return a phone call Friday seeking comment, and a receptionist at his law firm said Monday that he was out of the office this week.

Action stalls on creating TIF district in Vinita

City, state and project leaders broke ground in Vinita on Three Ponies RV Park and Campground, a luxury outdoor destination featuring 300 cabins and 750 RV sites, on Monday, Oct. 30, 2023. From left: Vinita Mayor Josh Lee; Gene McComb, American Heartland director of acquisitions; Steve Hedrick, American Heartland executive producer of project development; Kristy Adams, American Heartland senior executive vice president of marketing and sales; Gene Bicknell, American Heartland founder; Larry Wilhite, American Heartland president; Shelley Zumwalt, executive director of the Oklahoma Tourism and Recreation Department; Sen. Micheal Bergstrom (R-Adair); and state Rep. Rusty Cornwell (R-Vinita). (Provided)

At the April 16 Vinita City Council meeting, Lee said a committee had been formed to look into forming a Tax Increment Financing district. While TIF districts are implemented differently across the country, they are a tool used by municipalities to encourage private development and stimulate infrastructure improvements in targeted areas. Some TIFs involve sales taxes, and others involve property taxes.

“The committee has been picked, and we had a second meeting scheduled with that committee when we knew some changes were coming, and Mansion asked me if we still wanted to proceed — knowing that we would have changes — or if we should wait,” Lee said. “I thought — as well as our lawyers thought — it would make more sense to wait until we had hard numbers instead of wasting people’s time and say, ‘Oh no, just kidding, those numbers have changed.’ (…) Hopefully that will happen the next couple months, I would think, by the latest is my guess.”

Paul Williams, Mansion Entertainment’s strategic planning consultant, told council members their support is needed in forming the TIF district to get the proposed state funding for the water and wastewater infrastructure improvements, which would be crucial for the development of both the RV campground and theme park.

“I’ve had meetings with some of your other government folks out in Oklahoma City and Commerce and Finance on how that overall process fits together,” he said. “There’s a leverage act component which is state supported, but the neck of the funnel is right here. You’ve got to have the TIF in place before we can move on to any of the state-level support. And that’s a very local thing. I suspect this will be the first TIF that you all have had experience with, but everyone I’ve talked to in Oklahoma City is very supportive, so we’ll do what it takes to make sense and make sense for the city and county, which are both critical constituents.”