Silverwood gamble pays off

Park has grown into largest in the Pacific Northwest in 25 years

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JEROME A. POLLOS/Press Visitors to Silverwood Theme Park race down a "flume" on a log ride as the Corkscrew roller coasters overlooks the ride in the background.

COEUR d'ALENE - Not even Gary Norton knew what the river card would be, but that didn't stop the entrepreneur from going all in.

That was in 1988, and the self-made businessman turned Silverwood founder was around $1 million in the red after his first season operating the amusement park he had just built.

"We didn't really know what we were getting into," said Norton, guest speaker at the Coeur d'Alene Chamber of Commerce's Upbeat Breakfast on Tuesday. "That was the crazy part."

Especially since Silverwood started on a whim, in remote North Idaho.

Actually, it started from a collection of antique trains and planes Norton started purchasing after he had sold his business, ISC.

But after one season in the new venture, it was either time to fold "or just go all in," he said.

Norton went all in.

Twenty-five years later, and Silverwood keeps adding attractions. It has paid $86 million in local payroll and payroll taxes on its way to contributing $1 billion in economic impact across the region. Not bad for the park that has grown into the largest amusement playland in the Pacific Northwest.

Unsurprisingly, North Idaho has developed into a top tourism destination of its own right during that time, said Jerry Jaeger, Hagadone Hospitality president.

The Coeur d'Alene Resort, owned by Hagadone Hospitality, opened around a year before Silverwood did and together the two top-end destinations have helped turn tourism into a thriving industry in North Idaho.

For their part, Norton and Jaeger were awarded the inaugural Kyle M. Walker Champions of Tourism Award by the chamber and visitors bureau. Tuesday's presentation was also in recognition of National Tourism Week this week.

"Hopefully, we'll keep this thing growing and get a lot more smiles out there," Norton said of staying committed to the family-friendly destination.

Norton's business model is based on two things: Exceeding expectations and attention to details. It can be as simple as loading up a single serve ice cream cone to statue sized proportions as an example of the former, and the lush, landscaped gardens on the grounds as proof of the latter.

"We're trying to build more than just a park with rides but a real park you can enjoy," he said.

As tourism continues to play a huge role in the region's economy, Norton isn't satisfied with just letting things be. Like The Resort, which recently underwent a huge renovation for its silver anniversary, Silverwood keeps improving. This year, the entrance to the park will be all new. This, after turning the once-summer-only spot into a terrifying haunted house every autumn. Tourism, like any business, is a "painting you keep working on," he said.

The Kyle Walker award was named after Walker, known as 'Mr. Coeur d'Alene,' who served as the chamber manager from 1948 to 1971.

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