Proposed Johnstown corn maze hopes to attract city folks to rural life
September 2, 2014
Work is underway on a new agritourism venture in Johnstown that aims to build off of the success of the Fritzler Corn Maze in LaSalle and the Anderson Farms' maze in Erie.
If it gets final approval from Weld County on Sept. 3, the century-old Hankins Farms on Weld County Road 17 will transform into Hankins Entertainment for the coming fall season.
While long-term plans include an extensive list of possible activities ranging from paintball courses to zip lines to a petting zoo, this first season Hankins Farms would feature a haunted corn maze and a family-oriented fall festival.
Manager Darren Hankins said the entertainment offerings would complement Hankins Farms' traditional business of corn and wheat production, with the hope of attracting families and children back to the fun of farm life.
"We're not changing the way the farm is handled but the way it relates to the general public. As we're impacted with more people moving in, maybe we can expose them to agriculture in the area and respect for rural communities," Hankins said.
By offering interactive activities, Hankins hopes the farm will become an additional entertainment option for families looking to escape from city life. Rather than heading out for a mountain hike or a summer swim, Hankins wants families to consider a visit to the farm to reconnect with agriculture.
The farm will also offer basic educational elements, including an introduction to the farm's history and operations. Other educational offerings down the road could include livestock and dog demonstrations, trail rides and a farmers market.
At a Weld County Planning Commission meeting Tuesday, several neighbors expressed doubt the vicinity could take on additional traffic flow. That concern fueled much of the debate on the Hankins Farms' proposal.
Although Hankins' initial estimate was 2,000 visitors a week, he said numbers for the first year would not reach that high.
"When we applied, the hope was to do nights and three days a week. It's looking like now that it will be a weekend-type activity venue," Hankins said. "Probably, more realistic, would be 300 or 400 a day. This first year, we'll get our feet wet and, hopefully, make a little money or break even to reinvest next year."
High traffic potential was one of the main complaints in a letter to county officials from Thomas and Leslie Shoecraft, owners of the closest residence to Hankins Farms.
The Shoecrafts expressed concern the two-lane road leading to Hankins Farms already suffers from traffic congestion. This concern was echoed by other neighbors Tuesday, who said they are worried about traffic during peak commuting hours.
The county has proposed a traffic study to be undertaken by the business during the first season at an estimated cost of $3,000 to $5,000. The study would determine the need for additional traffic controls, such as an extended turn lane or a stop light near the property.
The county's suggestion of a possible round-about at the closest intersection was met with audible groans from those in attendance Tuesday.
The initial proposal of helicopter rides also provoked noise and safety concerns. Given the complexity of establishing aviation activities, Hankins said such entertainment would no longer be considered.
As for noise issues related to musical acts, Hankins said expansion choices would keep the needs of the neighborhood in mind.
"We hope to be good neighbors to our neighbors and, hopefully, they will respect what we are trying to do in terms of agri-tainment and getting people to connect with rural life, even if they do live in the city," he said.
The county provided the phone number of its 24/7 on-call staff for noise complaints and offered to lend a decibel reader to neighbor Leslie Shoecraft.
Several neighbors Tuesday also expressed drainage concerns due to the proposed additional traffic and activities on the Hankins' property. The possibility of water contaminated in sloughs provoked particular concern from those raising cattle and other agricultural commodities on neighboring properties.
Hankins and another neighbor reassured the commission that the farm's sloughs would offer sufficient filtration.
Agritourism veteran Glen Fritzler of LaSalle's Fritzler Corn Maze said he wishes new entertainment operators luck, but emphasized the limitations of the industry.
He related agritourism success to the supply-and-demand scenario of traditional agricultural offerings such as corn and onions.
"Everything is based on supply and demand. For a corn crop, you can over produce that crop, so the demand goes down. An onion crop is less substantial than corn, so it's a lot easier to overproduce. You take that up a level to agri-tainment and that is way easier to overproduce," Fritzler said. "If every farmer in Weld County put up a corn maze, there wouldn't be that many of them that could survive."
More than anything, he said, weather dictates the success of agritourism ventures. If Mother Nature cooperates, the customers will come.
"Every year is different. We're doing better numbers than the first year, but we've had years that weren't as good as the year before because of weather. If you took weather out of the factors, we'd probably see growth every year," he said.
As for the added competition, Fritzler said his maze has a loyal customer base that he expects to keep coming back, regardless of new businesses elsewhere.
Hankins agreed. Rather than viewing other corn mazes as competition, he said they have the potential to complement each other and encourage greater interest in rural communities.
"Hopefully, people will stay local and maybe go to all three. I think all three of them offer something different. Ours is a different experience than the other two," Hankins said.
In addition to different types of rides and activities, Hankins said the Johnstown farm simply offers "something special."
"Growing up here — and my dad grew up here, too — there's always been something interesting going on down there. It's a hidden little area and secluded between two corn fields. At least from my standpoint, there was something special about it growing up. Being outside with the entertainment and the leaves changing, hopefully, people will be drawn to it," he said.
If approved, Hankins Entertainment expects to begin operation in mid-September and offer activities through the end of October — wrapping up the season with Halloween festivities and a haunted corn maze. A standard year would offer activities beginning in May. ❖