Behind $6 million investment and growing, entrepreneur Mike Barnes innovates to keep go-kart, amusement park on track.
In 2002, Mike Barnes and his family were like many seasonal residents, anticipating the opening of Zoomers Amusement Park on Summerlin Road, about five miles from their Fort Myers Beach home.
The DeMoines, Iowa, apartment developer moved here permanently in 2004, and watched as the go-kart track, amusement park and arcade was under construction.
“Driving back and forth, we were watching it being built and were excited about it,” says Barnes. “And then we watched its demise. Hurricane Charlie hit, then construction stopped. The developer who had started it couldn’t finish it, and it sat here for years.”
Barnes eventually decided to go from passive —and passing the site — to actively making a go of it as a business. His investment, well over $6 million over six years, has taught him several key business lessons. The list includes constantly upgrading the business to stay ahead of trends, remaining nimble and never relenting on hiring standards.
But to get there, first the old Zoomers situation turned from bad to worse. The initial owner defaulted on the loan, the recession then put the bank that held the loan out of business and the FDIC was left to dispose of the property. Barnes says the bank had $11 million into the project, which had an additional $3 million in unpaid bills.
With nobody willing to pay $14 million for a partially completed and crumbling amusement park on 18 acres, one-fourth of which is preserve and drainage — the debt and the recession doomed the bank and Zoomers went to auction. In 2011, Barnes bought it at auction for $1.4 million — a fraction of the initial $3.2 million sale price of the raw land nine years earlier.
“Selling an unfinished amusement park is a tough way to get your money back,” he says. “(But) as a real estate developer, it seemed like a good move.”
Barnes, who at age 65 still operates Barnes Properties in DeMoines, spent a year and $5 million more to complete Zoomers. Opening to great fanfare in 2012, he still says it was a good move.
“It was a shell, but it was kind of a finished shell,” says Barnes. Minor work remained inside the building that now houses more than $1 million in games with a snack bar and upstairs party room. Many of the 10 mechanical rides were already in place. A dangerously designed go-kart track was dismantled and replaced with two tracks. He added bumper boats, an 18-hole mini-golf course and more.
To run it all, Barnes employs 50-75, depending on the season, 20 of them full-time. Filling the part-time, seasonal positions is a challenge similar to that faced by other businesses that employ a similar demographic, such as restaurants and retailers, in a tight labor market. It is compounded, though, by Barnes’ drug testing policy.
“One thing that hinders us in hiring is we drug test,” says Barnes. “You can't have somebody who is high strapping someone into a go-kart or running one of those rides. Someone will get hurt. When you drug test 18-to-21-year-olds, there is a percentage of them who don't come back or don’t show up because of it. A lot of the businesses we are competing with for the same workers don't drug test."
“One thing I have learned from this is there is no shortage of places to spend a million dollars." Zoomers owner Mike Barnes.
Barnes has also regularly tweaked Zoomers to keep it fresh. The newest addition is the Sidetrack Bar and Grill, formerly a snack bar in the center of the midway. It offers a dozen televisions, covered seating and a place for parents to relax while their kids play.
“The thing with this business is you have to continue to add new things. If you don’t you get tired, and when you get tired it’s just a downward spiral,” says Barnes. “We try to concentrate more on being a great go-kart facility. We draw day trips from Port Charlotte to the north, Marco Island to the south and Immokalee to the east.
Declining to disclose revenues, Barnes says Zoomers’ growth is double-digit year over year, including a 15% year-over-year bump in the first quarter.
While he does a variety of advertising and marketing, the location, Barnes says, is his best marketing tool. Annual attendance ranges between 100,000 and 120,000.
“I remember one of the game distributors saying we are the corner of Main and Main,” he says. “We're on a highway on the way to the beach.”
Barnes says more updates and additions are under consideration.“One thing I have learned from this is there is no shortage of places to spend a million dollars,” he adds.