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Will Neverland be the next Graceland?

The singer’s death last Thursday renewed speculation about the future of the four-square-mile ranch.
/ Source: The Associated Press

With Peter Pan as inspiration, Michael Jackson turned his lush Neverland ranch into a whimsical retreat with carnival rides, a chimpanzee named Bubbles and even a Disney-like train station where he could recapture his lost childhood.

But like the superstar’s career, the property’s idyllic image was tarnished when Jackson was accused of molesting a 13-year-old cancer survivor there in 2003. He was acquitted, but the scandal nearly ruined Jackson and drove him from Neverland forever. Over the last four years, the property fell into disrepair, and at one point it was weeks from being sold at a public auction.

The singer’s death last Thursday renewed speculation about the future of the four-square-mile ranch. Will it be turned into a tourist attraction celebrating the “King of Pop,” much like Elvis Presley’s Graceland pays homage to the “King of Rock and Roll”? Restored for his heirs to use? Or perhaps put on the market to cash in on the sudden interest in all things Jackson?

Like so many things involving Jackson’s life and death, the answer is not simple.

First, Jackson’s financial affairs must be sorted out. A will was produced Tuesday, but it isn’t clear if the family will contest it. Also, anything that would bring tens of thousands of people trooping through the hills of this bucolic wine region could face obstacles from people who pay tens of millions of dollars for the privilege of living here.

“If there’s a little extra tourism around the neighborhood that’s good,” said Los Olivos resident Frank Palmer, who runs a barbecue stand built in the shape of a historic steam engine in town. “But if it gets to the point where it’s just too much, I don’t know how we’d feel about that.”

But Kurt Kummerfeldt, who runs the tasting room at Buttonwood Farm, one of a dozen or more small vineyards that line a quiet back road that leads to Los Olivos, believes “anything that brings people to the area is a good thing.”

“Who knows? It could be another ‘Sideways,”’ Kummerfeldt says of Neverland becoming Graceland West as he pours a glass of wine. The reference is to the 2004 film that tells the story of a pair of guys searching for meaning in middle age as they meander through the region’s wine country. It is credited often here with helping put Buttonwood and other small, designer-label vineyards on the map.

Already the gates to Neverland have become a makeshift shrine, adorned with handwritten notes, flowers, photos and other tributes left by fans who flocked to the estate about 150 miles northwest of Los Angeles.

Decision on the property ‘in due time’On Wednesday, hundreds of parked cars lined both sides of the two-lane road leading to Neverland. About two hundred people crowded outside the estate, many of them journalists, their view of Jackson’s English-style manor and other Neverland fixtures obscured by a slope of golden brown hills dotted with oak trees.

Although the ranch was buzzing with activity — construction equipment coming and going along with gardeners and florists — a family spokesman said Wednesday Neverland would not be the site of Jackson’s funeral.

Colony Capital LLC, a Los Angeles real estate firm owned by billionaire Thomas Barrack, which bought Neverland and established a joint venture with Jackson last year, has said only that a decision on the future of the property will come “in due time.”

Jackson bought the ranch in 1988 from developer William Bone, who built the house on the property, then called Sycamore Valley Ranch. The singer renamed the ranch and turned it into a fantasyland where he welcomed children.

The property was home to a coterie of animals — tigers named Thriller and Sabu — elephants, orangutans and a giraffe. And he built a mini amusement park with a carousel, two trains and a station that recalls the one at Disneyland’s Main Street USA pavilion.

But his make-believe world came crashing down with the molestation charges and trial. After his acquittal in 2005, Jackson moved to Bahrain. The following year, he dismissed many of the Neverland staff after agreeing to pay hundreds of thousands of dollars in back wages to avoid a lawsuit by state labor officials.

Left largely untended, the once manicured grounds grew wild and the train and carnival rides gathered dust. Eventually, much of it was removed.

Will Neverland become a theme park?In March 2008, his finances strained, Jackson defaulted on a $23 million loan to Fortress Investment Group, and risked losing Neverland, which was used to secure the loan. Barrack stepped in a few months later, covering the outstanding amount — by then around $24.5 million. For $35 million, Jackson signed Neverland over to Sycamore Valley Ranch Co., a joint venture between Jackson and an affiliate of Barrack’s Colony Capital.

In the months since, Barrack has begun to refurbish the property with landscaping and repairs to the swimming pool.

Turning Neverland into a theme park would take several years and cost hundreds of millions of dollars, said Dennis Speigel, president of International Theme Park Services Inc., a Cincinnati-based consulting and management firm.

“You could spend half a billion dollars in the blink of an eye for your rides, theaters, restaurants, bathrooms and parking lots,” Speigel said. “It would be a huge gamble betting people would come out in big numbers.”

One obstacle is Neverland’s isolation, he said. The property is a two-and-a-half-hour drive north of Los Angeles and lacks surrounding infrastructure to handle large numbers of visitors.

The next Graceland?Comparisons have naturally been made with Graceland, which receives more than 600,000 visitors a year and brings in $150 million for the economy in Memphis, Tenn. Graceland, though, is located on a main thoroughfare in downtown Memphis and is less than five miles from the airport. The nearly 14-acre property, with its white-columned mansion, also serves as Presley’s final resting place.

Neverland is much less accessible. It’s 41 miles away from Santa Barbara Municipal Airport and to get there by car requires driving a cramped and winding country road. The nearest town, Los Olivos, is about five miles away and would be hardpressed to host multitudes of tourists. And it’s not clear if he will be buried there at some point.

“You want to have him on the site in Neverland. That’s where Elvis is at Graceland,” Speigel said.

So far, there’s been no request or even inquiries made to the Santa Barbara County planning department for a change in Neverland’s agricultural zoning designation, said county spokesman William Boyer.

The ranch was valued at $33 million in 2006, according to an accounting firm’s report from 2007. But it’s likely that property has dropped in value since then because of the housing market. But Jackson’s death may change things.

“If they’d put it on the market right after the trial, I think it would have not been well received,” said Rick Goodwin, publisher of Ultimate Homes and its parent publication, Unique Homes. “At that point in time, the dark cloud hung over that place. Death has a tendency to let people be more forgiving.”