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Shell Factory sure of staying power

May 1, 2014
By CHUCK BALLARO ( , Cape Coral Daily Breeze

In the wake of a loan extention denial -?and one of its best years yet - The Shell Factory is confident it can emerge from the lender's decision and become stronger than ever.

On April 11, it was reported that a $1.2 million mortgage note had come due, with the lender, BB&T Bank, unwilling to extend the deadline to repay and no other banks were interested in helping.

The bank twice previously extended the loan period. The original lender, Colonial Bank, also had extended the loan, which originally was to mature in 2009.

However, Colonial Bank closed and BB&T purchased all of Colonial's deposits, along with the Shell Factory loan.

According to Rick Tupper, marketing director at the Shell Factory, BB&T didn't seem to want something like the Shell Factory in its portfolio.

"We've gone through a few forbearance agreements, the last of which came due on March 31, and BB&T declined to extend the loan," Tupper said. "For them to give us another year wouldn't kill them at all."

The Shell Factory has never missed a payment, nor have they been delinquent, officials said. However, Tupper said the rules have changed, since the banks are more heavily regulated, thereby giving BB&T the right to not deal with the Shell Factory.

Ownership is currently exploring its options on resolving this situation or, at least, garnering time to continue to show the company's ability to remain in the black.

The iconic park is no stranger to adversity. Harold and Mildred Crant opened the Shell Factory in Bonita Springs in 1938, but was destroyed by a fire in 1954 and moved to its present site in North Fort Myers.

In 1960, Hurricane Donna destroyed the retail store. In 1981, a warehouse caught fire, and two years later, the new Interstate 75 took traffic flow away from U.S. 41.

Tom and Pam Cronin bought it out of foreclosure in 1997 and have spent the last 17 years, and much of its profits - not to mention almost all their money - renovating it and adding new attractions such as the Nature Park and its 350 animals, the dog park, and botanical gardens, among other things.

Last year was one of the best in the Shell Factory's history, with gross revenues of more than $4 million, up 15 percent from the previous year, Tupper said.

"Financially, we are stronger than ever, the best year in 13 years and we just had the best quarter ever." Tupper said. "We're moving ahead with new exhibits and the zip line."

In the meantime, the Shell Factory is continuing to put on more events, such as Sunday's Motor Mania, Cinco de Mayo the following day, a Memorial Day event, and possible others as summer progresses, and new attractions such as the upcoming zip line and just-opened fossil and gem museum.

Tupper said the Shell Factory last year changed its marketing strategy to cater more to the year-round residents as a family destination rather than an attraction geared more toward visitors. About 60 percent of visitors are tourists, as opposed to 80 percent previously. Tupper added, of course, that snowbirds and vacationers are always welcome.

Tupper said the attraction also is working on a "staycation" ad campaign for June, July and August. In it, Tupper compares its admission cost ($0) to that of Florida's largest attractions, such as Disney, which all run more than $300 for a family of four just to get through the turnstyle.

"We don't even compete with them, but for $300 you can come to the Shell Factory and have a whale of a good time," Tupper said.

"We had a guy who went to Busch Gardens, spent $1,000 and had a miserable time. The lines were long, the food was expensive and the kids got tired," Tupper said. "He came here and had a great time for $100."

Despite that, the chance of foreclosure, while slim, remains a possibility if a judge is willing to bang the gavel down on the one of the last pre-Disney tourist attractions remaining in Florida, Tupper said.

The consequences of losing the Shell Factory would be enormous for the North Fort Myers and Lee County. Besides losing an iconic attraction that three generations have enjoyed, 85 jobs would be lost, as well as $40,000 in tax revenue and $30,000 per month in sales tax. In addition there are 350 animals at the Nature Park. And the Nature Park Environmental Education Foundation has raised funds for field trips for more than 4,000 school children.

"Where are you going to put the animals, and the 13,000 children that the Cronins have paid for the buses to get them here, so you lose a lot," Tupper said.

"Most people can't imagine the Shell Factory not being here. Their parents and grandparents came here," Tupper said. "Not everything in this world has to be about money."

Chris Jackson, executive director of the North Fort Myers Chamber of Commerce, said he's been assured that it will be business as usual at the Shell Factory, a chamber member, until it isn't.

"It's a landmark and a family destination that's been here for 76 years. I can't see that the doors will close," Jackson, whose chamber offices are housed at the Shell Factory. "It could morph into something different, but I can't see this site locking its doors."

Honorary mayor Doug Dailey is also confident the Shell Factory isn't going anywhere soon.

"I believe the Shell Factory has a handle on things. It's a landmark and I think things will be just fine," Dailey said. "When you think Shell Factory, you think North Fort Myers."



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