Freestyle Music Park / Hard Rock Park – Abandoned Photo Update
It’s been 11 years since Freestyle Music Park was closed and abandoned in Myrtle Beach, South Carolina.
Opening in 2008 the park operated for a year as Hard Rock Park but after financial troubles changed its name to Freestyle Music Park which also only lasted for a year. The rest well…. we already covered in our video which you can see below.
After the park was closed the land was sold and still has not been developed on. Remnants of the park still exist now and the below photos show whats left of the ambitious park.
The photos were taken by Joshua Fritts and he gave us permission to post here. We don’t condone trespassing and strongly advise people stay away from the area because it is private property.
For now though enjoy the photos of the former park and see if you can spot what they used to look like in the video above. The photos were taken on the 31st May 2020.
That is all we have for the photos but drone footage of the site is out there if you want to see more.
One more time though please do not visit the site and trespass.
To stay up to date with all the theme park news and photos follow us on Twitter and Facebook.
Freestyle Music Park
Defunct amusement park, aka Hard Rock Park
Freestyle Music Park (previously known as Hard Rock Park) was a short-lived music themed amusement park built on 55 acres (22 ha) of a 140-acre (57 ha) property located in Myrtle Beach, South Carolina. The park was located at the intersection of US 501 and the Intracoastal Waterway. It included part of the former Waccamaw Factory Shoppes in Fantasy Harbour, and used Mall 3 as its headquarters.
The park originally opened on April 15, 2008, but closed on September 24, 2008, due to financial issues. It reopened on May 23, 2009, under the Freestyle brand, but closed again after the 2009 season due to financial issues and lawsuits that were filed against the park and never reopened.
Development of Hard Rock Park
Plans for a Hard Rock-themed amusement park were released in 2003, but at the time funding and licensing agreements had yet to be finalized.AVX Corporation CEO Dick Rosen and other investors including Ziel Feldman and Safe Harbor Capital Partners managing partner Amnon Bar-Tur created two companies. Myrtle Property Owners I, which invested in the proposed theme park and Myrtle Property Owners II which bought land from Rosen with the intent to build a hotel along the Intracoastal Waterway in October 2005. A feasibility study predicted 3 million visitors a year in the park's first year, with growth of nine percent the second year and decreasing growth rates after that.
By 2006, a licensing agreement with the Hard Rock franchise was reached. The Hard Rock name was licensed from Seminole Nation–owned Hard Rock International, current owners/operators of the Hard Rock Cafe brand, to HRP Myrtle Beach Operations, LLC, which designed and built the park, for a fee of $2.5 million per year. Investors included Tim Duncan and AVX Corporation CEO Dick Rosen. Financing also included a loan of $385 million, though the park only cost $225 million to build. An early theme was the four seasons of summer, spring, winter and fall.
Hard Rock Park was officially announced in early 2007. Construction for the park took place in 2007.
2008 season: Hard Rock Park
The grand opening celebration as Hard Rock Park on June 2, 2008, featured a concert by Eagles and The Moody Blues. The park featured six "rock environs" celebrating rock's culture, lifestyle, legends and irreverence. These rock environs included the All Access Entry Plaza, Rock & Roll Heaven, British Invasion, Lost in the 70's, Born in the USA and Cool Country. At opening, the park had amusement rides, live shows, interactive elements, kids play areas, gardens, shopping and dining attractions. The main attractions of the park were the roller coasters and live shows that were set to music. The park included an amphitheater with 10,000-person capacity featuring live daily shows and special performances. Other amusements included a carousel, a water play structure and swings. Most attractions prominently featured music, bands, and rock memorabilia like its cafe counterpart.
The park opened to positive reviews. The Times of London's writer Chris Haslam concluded that America's newest theme park brought the genre "from the preschool plastic of Disney to a new age of insubordinate adolescence through a combination of nerdy attention to detail, startling irreverence and sly wit." Beth J. Harpaz, Associated Press travel editor, declared Nights in White Satin: The Trip as one of her all-time favorite rides from any park. However, Hard Rock Park had stated the park could accommodate up to 30,000 visitors a day, and in light of the frozen credit markets during the financial crisis of 2007–2008, the park could not secure sufficient finance to underwrite its planned advertising campaign. As the 2008 economic downturn deepened during the summer, high gas and hotel prices coupled with limited advertising by the park led to lower-than-expected attendance. The park cited "macroeconomic conditions that significantly depressed overall demand in the travel and leisure industry" and a lack of cash to advertise. The park had borrowed a lot of money and could not convince investors to provide more help to keep the park going.
Changes were made to operating hours and planned operating days. The original closing time of 1 a.m. was moved up to 10 p.m. in August and the park moved to weekend-only operations after Labor Day. With an earlier end-of-season planned on November 2, the park scheduled no concerts past August 30.
Early closure, bankruptcy and new owners
In September 2008, HRP investor Africa Israel Investments decided to write off its entire $10 million investment in the park "due to liquidity difficulties the park is experiencing". Hard Rock Park then announced that they were ending the 2008 season over a month early, laying off most of the employees, and had filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy protection. At the time of the filing, the park expressed hopes of reopening in 2009; the following month the company announced plans to sell the park. In January 2009, the company converted to Chapter 7.
In February 2009, the Delaware bankruptcy court declined to force an auction and approved the sale of the park to FPI MB Entertainment (FPI) for $25 million. FPI MB Entertainment was a joint venture of FPI US LLC, a company incorporated in Delaware, and MB Entertainment. The partners included Roundbox Advisors, Freestyle Park International, Baker Leisure Group, and two of the park's original owners, Thomas M. Hiles and D. Tim Duncan. Baker Leisure Group managed the day-to-day park operations. FPI had to completely re-skin and overhaul the park to comply with court rulings.
On April 2, 2009, the new owners announced that the Hard Rock name would be dropped. While Hard Rock International had been willing to continue use of the name if conditions could be met, the owners felt that changing the name would give the park a more positive image since the old name was connected with the bankruptcy; also, the "Hard Rock" name was not considered family-oriented. Because of the name change, the bankruptcy court required all Hard Rock merchandise to be destroyed.
Later that month, FPI unveiled a new name for the park: Freestyle Music Park, stating that it would pay homage to a variety of musical genres, including rock n' roll, country, reggae, beach music, pop, R&B, alternative, Christian, disco, and rap. The name does not refer to the Latin music genre, according to sales and marketing director John Stine.
In May 2009, HRP Creative Services Co. wanted to make certain attractions separate from the park the new owners planned, with former park CEO Steven Goodwin wanting the new owners to pay royalties. However, a Delaware federal judge said on March 30 that some of the previous owners still owned intellectual property rights relating to the original theme. The original owners then sued FPI, claiming they had not done enough to change the park, and that the new owners were using intellectual property that was not theirs. This action threatened to delay the reopening.
On June 22, 2009, the county planning commission agreed to change the name of Hard Rock Parkway to Fantasy Harbour Boulevard. FPI agreed to pay part of the cost for new signs. Businesses located on the road would have to pay their own expenses as the road, once called Outlet Boulevard, received its second name change in two years. By mid-September, five of the seven signs on the street itself had been changed.
2009 season: Freestyle Music Park
The park reopened on May 23, 2009, with adult admission reduced to $39.95 ($29.95 for children) and annual passes to $64.95 ($39.95 for children). Additionally, the park offered three separate promotions during the 2009 summer season: $10 off for South Carolina residents, $17.76 for two admission tickets after 4PM and $19.99 for two admission tickets prior to 4PM. As a result of these discounts, the park also made less money than hoped.
Aside from the renaming of the overall park, sections of the park also got new names; "Myrtle's Beach" (previously "Rock 'N' Roll Heaven") became a "tongue-in-cheek celebration of all things Polynesian," "Born in the USA" became "Kids in America," "British Invasion" became "Across the Pond," and "Cool Country" became "Country USA." The entrance changed names from "All Access Entry Plaza" to "VIP Plaza". FPI also introduced Kids in America, a 17,000-square-foot (1,600 m2) children's section with four rides named after hit songs purchased from Zamperla of Italy. The rides are named "Get Off My Cloud," "Fly Like an Eagle," "Wheels in the Sky" and "Life Is a Highway." "CSI: Live", previously performed at Six Flags Magic Mountain near Los Angeles, was added to the park and was based on the CSI TV series.
As the park prepared to close at the end of the summer, FPI President Steve Baker said, "Overall, I'm real happy," and that "we're doing our best, and we're here to stay." Baker made these comments despite the fact that the economy and the park's past problems contributed to a less than spectacular first season. Many amusement parks were also having difficulties, said David Mandt of the International Association of Amusement Parks and Attractions. Consultant Dennis Speigel, who had no connection to the park, said, "It's probably the largest catastrophe in our industry. Quite frankly the park shouldn't reopen." He said for the price FPI paid, they should have been able to make the park succeed. Speigel said the park was too far from the beach.
Further problems and subsequent closure
Throughout the season, a series of lawsuits were filed against the park, adding to the park's woes. The lawsuits were filed by Brandon Advertising (for $1.4 million) on August 5, 2009, and Roundbox Advisors LLC (for $360,000) on August 17, 2009. Baker explained that FPI MB would pay both creditors, saying that Freestyle Park had fewer problems than Hard Rock Park, but people were assuming the difficulties would continue, meaning that they were less patient. Tetra Financial Group also filed a lawsuit in September for lease payments, taxes and fees. In October 2009, FPI announced that they had lined up some new investors to help the park pay its debts. They signed a memorandum of understanding with the investors.
The agreement to purchase Hard Rock Park included paying $570,000 owed by the former park owners. In January 2010, the attorney for Hard Rock Park's trustee allowed an extension on that payment as the park searched for new investors. Court documents said the economic situation caused difficulties in making the payments. The park laid off 30 employees early in January 2010.
In February 2010, FPI attorney Tobey Daluz announced that the park would not open in March 2010 as planned. She said when or if the park opened depended on actions of investors who have not been identified. On March 29, 2010, lawyer David Slough said the park would not reopen unless investors allowed FPI to pay Hard Rock Park's debt by the deadline of April 1, 2010. He would not say how close investors were to a deal. On April 1, 2010, Slough said, "Currently, the park has no ability to make the payment." Foreclosure and even bankruptcy are now possibilities, but the park could still find investors and reopen, according to attorney Allen Jeffcoat. Court documents filed April 13, 2010, in federal bankruptcy court in Delaware say a court ruling will create a lien; the next step will likely be a Horry County court action leading to the park's sale. On June 29, 2010, a federal court awarded Tetra $14 million after Freestyle failed to answer the lawsuit. On June 30, 2010, Baker said the park was "aggressively" seeking new investors. Jeffcoat, who had no connection to the case, said Tetra would only be repaid after other creditors who already had claims.
On August 9, 2010, foreclosure proceedings were filed against Freestyle Music Park. Mortgage holder FPI US LLC seeks over $25 million from park owner FPI MB Entertainment LLC. Loan documents identified the general manager of FPI US LLC as Alexey (Alexei in most documents) Sidnev; Sidnev was a former partner in Moscow-based MT Development, an investor in Freestyle Park that had planned a similar park in Europe. Court filings showed FPI US LLC is a division of MT Development. On August 20, FPI MB Entertainment responded to the foreclosure action, admitting the amount of debt is correct and that it cannot pay. Four out of five creditors responding to the foreclosure claimed FPI US and FPI MB were the same company and that FPI US should not have first claim to park assets. FPI MB attorney Nate Fata denied this. In an August 24, 2010, interview, Baker said the park's entire board had resigned, except for one member appointed by Russian investors who would work to sell the park. Baker, who continued to head Baker Leisure Group, believed the park could succeed under new owners.
VenCore Solutions, which leased items such as radios and shelves to Hard Rock Park, continued its agreement with Freestyle Park. On September 8, VenCore, claiming FPI MB owes the company over $1 million was granted the right to repossess the property. FPI MB stated in a letter that VenCore was correct that the property "is currently uninsured and not subject to a hurricane contingency plan."
In December 2011, FPI US which received the property in an August foreclosure auction, filed papers showing it had mortgaged the property for $20 million, money that the company's attorney said was needed for maintenance and other expenses until a sale. Land for a proposed hotel which was never built was later sold in a foreclosure auction on July 2, 2012.
Three months before the Summer 2012 season, Alain Wizman of Keller Williams, who had been looking for buyers, said Freestyle appeared unlikely to make a return before 2013. However, on April 18, 2013, local Myrtle Beach newspaper My Horry News reported that local Christian nonprofit arts group Abiding Village launched a campaign to generate enough money to buy the former park minus the rides for $10 million and convert the old park into an education and entertainment complex. An official with Freestyle gave the group three weeks to come up with the resources to purchase the land and buildings, according to Abiding Village officials. On May 7 it was announced via The Sun News that with 5 days left Abiding Village had raised only $1 million of the $10 million goal. On May 13, WBTW and WMBF-TV reported the Abiding Village would not call the old theme park home. The group held a yard sale on May 12, 2013 and later that evening the group's website listed the total as $155,789.82. Abiding Village reps said that they were hopeful that they would still be able to buy the land in the future.
Martin Durham, the park's former vice president for entertainment, said many factors led to the park's demise, but the biggest culprit was the recession that hit right as it opened.
On November 12, 2013, local media reported that Freestyle Music Park was trying to sell off many of the rides from the venture. This was despite earlier rumors that Baker had plans to move the Freestyle rides to a park he planned to open in Orlando, Florida. Dozens of the rides were listed for sale with Nashville-based Ital International; exceptions were the Wave Swinger and Balloon Race, previously sold to Seabreeze Amusement Park. On December 20, 2013, The Sun News reported that the 13-acre Family Kingdom Amusement Park had purchased The Magic Bikes and Jump Around Dunebuggies, two interactive family rides which were the right size for the park. In late July 2014, dismantling and removal of the other rides began. As of August 11, 2014, Ital International no longer listed the rides, and it was reported that other rides were being shipped out of the US, possibly to Vietnam. Being taken down was the roller coaster known as The Eagles' Life In The Fast Lane. Other rides from the park already had been sold. As of February 2015, all of the rides had been dismantled. They were reassembled in Asia Park in Da Nang, Vietnam with the exception of the Led Zeppelin/Time Machine, Maximum RPM!/Round About, and Slippery When Wet/Soakd’ coasters. The track has appeared in Ha Long, Vietnam at a new park called Dragon Park Ha Long. Both parks have the same owner. The ride opened in 2017 under the name Dragon’s Run. Two of the former coasters were set up at Sun World Danang Wonders, but never operated.
On February 20, 2014, The Sun News reported that Medieval Times Dinner & Tournament bought roughly four acres of the park which it used prior to 2008 for its horses to exercise and graze.
Area government officials visited China in February 2016 and reported that investors had plans for a $100 million development on the site.
Sale of former park property
On January 1, 2019, it was reported that the former Hard Rock/Freestyle Music Park property of approximately 125.14 acres as well as several other parcels was sold by FPI US LLC. to FTPP Bishop Parkway LLC for $3,545,000. The future of the property is currently unknown though the land is currently zoned as a planned development district, according to the Geographic information system (GIS) maps, so it a prime spot for potential development that could include housing or even another tourist attraction.
On February 26, 2019, it was revealed that former Myrtle Beach Mayor John Rhodes purchased the old park property back on December 28, 2018. Rhodes said that he was not sure of what he wanted to do with the property, saying that only that any development would take advantage of the waterway and that "it will not be another theme park." Rhodes applied for demolition permits but did say some buildings might remain.
On April 6, 2019, John Rhodes, managing partner of the new ownership group, stated that he did not have any immediate plans for the property, and that he was not against selling the property undeveloped. Rhodes stated that he was in no rush to develop the property as there might be others who wanted it more than he did. He did state that he had some ideas for the property, but that he had to find out from his contractor if any of his ideas would work with the existing buildings.
On February 17, 2019 fire official were called just before midnight to the former Hard Rock/Freestyle Music Park for a three-alarm fire. At about 3:00 a.m the fire was out and investigators were working the scene and the cause of the blaze was not immediately known, but was later deemed suspicious by fire investigators and local police.
On June 30, 2019, a debris/structure fire broke out at the former amusement park and a preliminary investigation by fire officials show that the two separate fires were not "of an accidental ignition." A witness told police that they saw smoke coming from the park and that they saw a group of people leaving the site and was able to provide police with a license number, but nobody has been arrested in connection to the case and police continue to investigate. 
On September 6, 2019 at 5:20 am, fire officials responded to a reported commercial structure fire, with the fire being in a former ticket booth area near where one of the parks entrances used to be and flames were visible upon arrival, but the fire was under control within about 30 minutes and there were no reported injuries. There currently are no indications that the fire was suspicious, and is currently under investigation. 
On October 10, 2019 it was reported that Horry County received a rezoning application in which the property owner is requesting an update to the Planned Development District and to allow for additional uses on a portion of the site. The 112 acre property is currently zoned for only theme park use and possible uses for the property were to be presented during a planning and zoning workshop on November 7, where leaders would decide on what possible uses will be permitted at the former amusement park. The owner of the land confirmed the future development of the property will not include an amusement park.
On June 24, 2021, it was announced that any chance of the former park site being redeveloped into an amusement area would all but disappear if Horry County officials approve a land use change request for the property. It is expected that the county planning commission will make a recommendation to expand the distribution district on the site to 125 acres, which would eliminate most of the amusement uses at what is now a former $400 million theme park. If the land changed is approval, then 27 types of businesses would be allowed on the property ranging from vehicle and equipment maintenance to RV and boat storage or even wholesale and distribution. 
On July 9, 2021, it was announced that the following night the Horry County planning commission approved the expansion of the Planned Development District, but that Horry County council would still need to appove the next step before the project can move forward. There are more than 30 things that could go in the area, but an exact use hasn't been decided, though the developer has indicated that they are either planning to use it for a small packaging site or even using it for something transportation related. 
Flip 5 Live!-Stars Theatre-Kids In America This was "a high energy, interactive show that rocked the house." The 11 characters were named Kira, Kimmy, Dot, Spin, Chase, Bounce, Trip, Jive, Jam, Cali and Zach. They sang original and cover songs from the past and present.
On October 26, 2010, the book Grand Strand by former park employee Reid Barwick, became available for purchase online. Many of the details of the fictional "Rocktime Amusement Park" match those of the real story of Hard Rock and Freestyle Music Parks. However, the book contains fraudulent deals which Baker denies took place.
The park was used as a set on an episode of the TV series Revolution. Several rides and the park itself was used as the scene of a post-apocalyptic amusement park.
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Photos of Abandoned Hard Rock Park in Myrtle Beach
The similarities between Hard Rock Park and the Titanic are downright creepy. Giant plans, lots of investments, large budgets and as nearly as soon as it starts to take off, it sank. Theme Park University readers know that I covered the evolution of the park extensively here, from unused concepts to what lead to the eventual demise.
Even though the park did close in 2008, it did try and resurrect itself under the name Freestyle Amusement Park in 2009. This branding under new management also managed to only last one summer before it folded as well.
Since then, all the rides have been sold off to other parks one by one around the globe. The grounds, however, remain rotting for the world to see. Lucky for us, a Theme Park University reader sent us a some photos of the abandoned Hard Rock Park that we are able to share with you today. Many thanks to national bohemian on Instagram for sending along their personal photos of the park as of January 2017.
This archway stood at the entrance of the park’s British Revolution area. This shot is taken facing the All Access Plaza, which served as the main entrance to the park.
Deeper into the park, you can see the street directionals remain in the British Revolution remain.
You can see just how overgrown the abandoned Hard Rock Park has become. Lots of overgrown shrubbery and weeds.
Probably the most disheartening thing to see in the park is how much graffiti has taken over. Check out the former entrance to Nights In White Satin: The Trip. For reference, here is what the face looked like in the summer of 2008.
And here is what it looks like now.
Just next door is where the former Roadies Stunt Show took place.
The lake around which the park was built is still there! The stand where for former neon guitar sat still exists too.
The stadium which housed the Malibu Beach Party show (known as Adrenaline Rush for Freestyle Amusement Park) remains largely untouched.
Finally, we have some photos from the All Access Plaza, which served as the park’s Main Street.
Part of me is disheartened to see the park like this, but then again, it’s kind of nice to know it still exists in some form. Your thoughts?
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Images Copyright: HRP USA, National Bohemian Instagram
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Everyone In South Carolina Should See What’s Inside The Gates Of This Abandoned Theme Park
Posted in South CarolinaAttractions February 19, 2018by Robin Jarvis
From almost the very beginning, the much anticipated Hard Rock Theme Park that opened in Myrtle Beach in 2008 was plagued with issues. The music-themed park opened to great reviews exactly ten years ago this April. The Eagles and The Moody Blues were both invited to christen the venue during the opening days with classic music from the 70s and 80s. Unfortunately, that was the same year our country was hit with a hard economic downturn that eventually touched the lives of millions of people in the US, including the owners of the new theme park. They soon found themselves in economic hard times.
During these uncertain times, please keep safety in mind and consider adding destinations to your bucket list to visit at a later date.
Were you among the lucky people who got to experience Hard Rock Park?
To tour another abandoned spot in South Carolina, be sure to read this article we published in 2016.
Rock park hard abandoned
For someone who’s just lost a priceless possession, Jim Burton is surprisingly upbeat.
It’s a sunny afternoon in November 2018, and we’re standing in the parking lot of what used to be Hard Rock Park, a 50-acre rock music-themed amusement park just outside Myrtle Beach in South Carolina. Before walking me through the abandoned site earlier that day, Jim—a smiling, bespectacled man with silver hair and a matching goatee—had proudly showed off a prized souvenir in the back of his pickup truck: a large architectural plan of the park, which he helped construct before becoming its technical director.
Back in the parking lot after the walk-through, the plan has disappeared, and theft is the only realistic explanation. Jim, who wore his limited-edition “Hard Rock Park Founders” shirt to our rendezvous, is clearly stung by the loss, but he quickly makes it clear that he values memories far more than physical artifacts.
“You can see the circle of life right here in the park,” he says, his brown eyes lighting up. “It started out as nothing. Nothing but a dream. And then the dream comes to life. We saw it in its glory, saw the dream, and the reality. And now it’s returning back to ashes.”
Billed as the world’s first rock and roll theme park, Hard Rock Park opened its gates to the public in the spring of 2008. One of the first things visitors saw when they walked through the gates was a giant electric guitar—rising 90 feet over the park’s central lagoon, the statue loomed into view as park-goers strolled past the bell towers of the entry plaza, modeled after the buildings in the cover art of Hotel California. If they looked down as they approached the water, they would realize they were standing on the frets of another guitar, set into the pavement.
“It started out as nothing," says Jim Burton, former technical director of the park. "Nothing but a dream. And then the dream comes to life. We saw it in its glory, saw the dream, and the reality. And now it’s returning back to ashes.”
The Gibson statue was iconic, but it wasn’t the park’s largest structure. That was Led Zeppelin The Ride: a roughly 150-foot tall rollercoaster designed in partnership with the band and synced to its 1969 hit, “Whole Lotta Love.” Riders boarded inside a life-sized airship, and speakers blasted the song’s breakdown as they were cranked up the lift hill; the iconic guitar riff kicked in as the train hurtled out of the first loop.
Across the water, a huge mural beckoned visitors into a Moody Blues-themed dark ride called Nights in White Satin: The Trip, designed to evoke a multisensory psychedelic experience. The adjacent concert arenas hosted artists like the Eagles, Kid Rock, and Charlie Daniels; after sunset, the lagoon erupted into a nightly fountain and firework extravaganza choreographed to Queen’s “Bohemian Rhapsody.” Lasers shot from the head of the guitar statue during Brian May’s solo, before a sparkler-covered kite was towed around the water during the song’s final bars.
There’s no sign of giant guitars or musical rollercoasters when I walk into the park 10 years after it first opened. Under the bright November sky, the site is deserted, save for a man fishing from a bridge over the lagoon.
Weeds grow through every crack in the pavement, and shrubs and wild grasses sprout from the untended flowerbeds. There’s the occasional piece of vandalism—two crude swastikas spray-painted on a concrete walkway, a giant penis daubed across a life-sized replica of the cover art from The Beatles’ Abbey Road—but mostly, the park is home to plants and animals. The fisherman is gone by the time I cross the bridge, but I catch sight of what he may have been after: an enormous grass carp, cruising lazily through the emerald-green water.
Hard Rock Park was valued at nearly $400 million when it opened in April 2008; barely five months later, just after the collapse of Lehman Brothers heralded the start of the global financial crisis, it filed for bankruptcy, and was subsequently sold for just $25 million. The park’s new owners relaunched it under new branding in 2009, but closed it after only one season. It was never reopened.
“It was probably the biggest failure we have ever seen in our industry, in the shortest period of time,” said Dennis Spiegel, a theme park expert.
In its evolution from baby-boomer fever dream to extravagant multi-million dollar reality, Hard Rock Park exemplified the manic speculation of the years before the financial crisis; the story of its spectacular failure is a cautionary tale of what can happen when expectations become untethered from reality.
“The old days of ‘build it and they will come’—they don’t exist,” said Dennis Spiegel, a theme park expert who was hired by one of the park’s investors to conduct a post-mortem after it first closed. “It was probably the biggest failure we have ever seen in our industry, in the shortest period of time.”
Left: Jim Burton / Right: The sign for the Hang Ten rollercoaster.
Like the best rock and roll parties, Hard Rock Park started small but got out of hand really fast.
In the year 2000, a 42-year-old Orlando-based entrepreneur named Jon Binkowski bought a small ice-rink theater near Myrtle Beach. He had no professional connection to the music world, but plenty of experience in theme parks: After overseeing entertainment at SeaWorld in the 80s, he had founded his own company, Renaissance Entertainment, in 1989. The theater was part of a cluster of mostly defunct, locally owned venues formerly known as Fantasy Harbour, situated just off Route 501. Binkowski named the theater the Ice Castle, and started a run of shows there starring former Olympic skater Nancy Kerrigan.
“It’s easier to raise a hundred million than ten million,” said Steven Goodwin, former CEO of Hard Rock Park.
Binkowski’s work at SeaWorld had won plaudits, and Renaissance—which he still runs—had picked up design and development contracts from the likes of Disney and Universal Studios. But he struggled to attract visitors to the Ice Castle. He thought building an amusement park next to it might draw a bigger crowd, so he drew up blueprints. Initially, he had trouble finding financial backers—until he met Steven Goodwin, a former executive at British entertainment conglomerate Rank Group, who encouraged him to think bigger.
“It’s easier to raise a hundred million than ten million,” Goodwin told me over the phone from North Carolina, where he now runs a vacation rental business. “Small investors get cautious about deploying modest amounts of capital. But if you have a quality product and show the potential for higher returns, money follows money.”
Goodwin, who would go on to become the park’s CEO, helped Binkowski expand plans for a park, named Fantasy Harbour in recognition of the complex the Ice Castle had belonged to. Thinking that a generic theme would be cheaper than licensing an existing brand, they proposed framing the park around the four seasons. Investors thought this was too plain, so Binkowski countered with plans for a park themed around various Hollywood movies, in partnership with MGM Studios; this, he told me, turned out to be prohibitively expensive.
Then he had another idea. In the 90s, Rank Group—Goodwin’s former employer—had acquired Hard Rock, the rock and roll-themed restaurant, hotel, and casino chain. Since its genesis as a single cafe in seventies London, Hard Rock had broken into North America and expanded rapidly, opening locations in nearly 50 cities, including Myrtle Beach. One night in 2002, Binkowski emailed Goodwin, with the subject line “I’m not smoking anything, I swear.”
“Here’s my wacky thought,” he wrote, in an exchange he later shared in a presentation at an industry conference. “What if we got Hard Rock to give us a license for a theme park?!… Call it Hard Rock Park […] The Nascar types would like it, the Bikers would like it, Families we already know love it…and even the Spring Breakers would visit the attraction.”
As it turned out, Goodwin had done a stint at the Hard Rock business himself after Rank purchased it, spending two years in Orlando during the late 90s as its head of strategic development. He put Binkowski in touch with Hard Rock’s licensing department, who loved the idea. The two parties hammered out a branding agreement, and Binkowksi and Goodwin assembled a small team—including Felix Mussenden, a former Universal executive who became Hard Rock Park’s chief operations officer—to help flesh out their plan. A couple of years later, Rank sold the Hard Rock business to the Seminole Tribe of Florida; Goodwin said they were less enthusiastic about the park, but eventually he persuaded them to honor the branding agreement.
The next hurdle was funding. In exchange for an ownership stake in the park, local landowners and a group of real estate investors had contributed $25 million worth of land and $37 million of cash to the project—but Binkowski and Goodwin needed significantly more money to actually build it. In less optimistic times, they might have struggled to raise what they needed, but this was 2006: the height of the pre-crisis credit boom. They approached bankers and professional fund managers, and within a matter of months managed to borrow $320 million to finance the park’s construction.
They broke ground that same year, brandishing novelty guitar-shaped shovels in front of a giant sand sculpture called “Mount Rockmore,” featuring busts of Elvis Presley, John Lennon, Bob Marley, and Jimi Hendrix. Binkowski’s wacky idea had come to life.
“The whole thing exists because of this small little theater that he couldn’t make work,” said Josh Young, who runs an industry blog called Theme Park University. “The idea was to turn this theater and get it out of debt, and then all of a sudden, it ballooned from this small 25 million-dollar business to a 400 million-dollar budget.”
Myrtle Beach is a tourist town. According to the local Chamber of Commerce, it hosts roughly 17 million visitors every year, compared to a local population of just 33,000 people.
The sunny beaches and temperate waters of the South Carolina coast are the main draw—Myrtle Beach and the surrounding area is often called the “Redneck Riviera,” after its reputation as a budget-friendly regional tourist destination—but the city is also popular with golfers and bikers. In recent years, it has hosted a growing number of sporting events, and it’s been the home of the Carolina Country Music Festival since 2015. Myrtle Beach is also one of the fastest growing cities on the East Coast, thanks largely to an influx of retirees, many of them attracted by the area’s temperate climate and low property taxes.
But the city’s economy is still overwhelmingly dependent on tourism, and this has side-effects. Locals complain of gridlocked streets, crowds of drunk spring-breakers, and occasional violence during high season, while in the winter months, they gripe about job scarcity and an influx of homeless people from colder cities further north. Some Carolinians call the town “Dirty Myrtle,” a nickname that refers as much to its reputation for drugs and prostitution as it does to its polluted seawater.
Outside the old park that weekend in November, I met Brendan, a 20-something who lives in North Carolina but said he spent most of his time with his biker friends around Myrtle Beach. While his buddies pulled wheelies in the parking lot, he told me the city was a hard place for a young person to build a social life.
“Tinder is a bitch down here,” he laughed. “If you swipe during the summer, you’ll match with someone and then you’ll get a reply the next day and they’re like, 300 miles away. And then in the winter there’s just no one around.”
But while it’s not exactly a rock and roll town, it does have a rich musical history: as the epicenter of Beach Music. Characterized by sweet vocal harmonies and the shuffling beats of rhythm and blues, this sound crept through Myrtle Beach and the surrounding coastline as American tourism boomed after the end of World War II.
Beach Music exploded during the 60s, as crowds of mostly white and middle-class holidaymakers flocked to the Myrtle Beach Pavilion to hear groups like The Temptations and The Four Tops and practice the genre’s distinctive dance, a kind of swing-shuffle hybrid known as “The Shag.” A dance hall, entertainment venue, and amusement park, the Pavilion quickly became beach music’s central hub. “It was where the kids made their pilgrimage,” said John Hook, a veteran beach music DJ and local historian. “It was the mecca.”
The movement quietened down in the 70s, a development historians attribute to the social unrest of the hippie era and the increasing popularity of rock music. When it experienced a resurgence toward the end of that decade, the scene had largely migrated up the coast to North Myrtle Beach, but the Pavilion remained its spiritual center; so when local real estate company Burroughs & Chapin announced in 2006 that it was closing the venue for financial reasons, many saw it as a bad omen for the city’s economy.
In reality, Myrtle Beach was already struggling. In the 90s, developers had rushed to build resorts and golf courses to serve the city’s growing tourist market and retiree population; but demand couldn’t keep up, and the resulting overcapacity led many of these businesses to close. By the time Hard Rock Park began construction in 2006—the same year the Pavilion was shuttered—unemployment in Myrtle Beach had already risen well above the national average. As Hook put it, the 2008 crash was “just the cherry on top”.
Building an edgy new theme park in a struggling tourist town was the kind of audacious idea that investors would ordinarily run away from.
In contrast to the stock market, where the promise of future growth often drives demand for ownership shares in companies that are yet to become profitable, debt investors generally prefer to lend to business they know can make enough money to pay them back. But when Binkowski and Goodwin borrowed money to build the park in 2006, they were years away from generating any kind of revenue, let alone turning a profit.
The lion’s share of Hard Rock Park’s funding came from a $305 million offering of bonds—interest-paying debt instruments, similar to loans—structured by Goodwin’s advisers at Deutsche Bank and Jefferies. Recognizing that the park was far from certain to generate enough cash flow to sustain this debt, credit rating agencies labelled the deal as a speculative investment, often referred to as “junk.” Junk is a slightly melodramatic term; America is full of speculative-grade businesses, and many of them function perfectly well. However, Hard Rock Park’s debt was at the very bottom end of the junk-bond spectrum, meaning the park had basically zero room for error. If construction went over budget, or attendance fell even slightly below expectations, it was almost certain to fall behind on its interest payments.
But Hard Rock Park’s bankers were confident they could find people who could stomach these risks, Goodwin told me. This was no ordinary time in financial markets; when they began marketing the deal to investors in 2006, the US economy was red-hot. Stocks were were pushing record highs, house prices had risen for more than 40 years without a major correction, and fund managers all over the world were piling people’s savings and pensions into bonds backed by American mortgages. This was driving banks to extend home loans to increasingly risky borrowers, so they could package the mortgages into more bonds to sell to investors, transferring the risk and earning more fees in the process.
Goodwin said he expected Hard Rock Park to appeal to a niche audience of aggressive investors like hedge funds, which aim to generate substantial returns and therefore have a relatively high tolerance for risk. He underestimated the market’s appetite: Regulatory filings from the years around the deal show that many of the lenders that bankrolled Hard Rock Park were large and typically more conservative investment firms, including BlackRock and Eaton Vance.
A drift towards riskier investments is an inevitable part of economic cycles, but left unchecked, it can get out of control. Economists call this irrational exuberance: the point at which enthusiasm overpowers clear-headed analysis of economic fundamentals. It’s almost by definition hard to detect while it’s happening, but can often be identified in hindsight—it tends to precede economic recessions, like the one that occurred in 2008.
Steven Siesser, a partner at corporate law firm Lowenstein Sandler, described investors’ behavior in this kind of febrile environment as a feeding frenzy. “It's like fishing for mahi-mahi,” he said. “One comes along, then all their friends arrive, and pretty soon they're hitting a bare hook and you can pull 30 of them out of the water in the space of 30 minutes.”
One of the reasons Hard Rock Park got such a low credit rating was because its proposed business model was based on highly optimistic assumptions about attendance. But a large part of its appeal to investors was cultural, as opposed to financial.
The baby boomers who grew up with bands like The Rolling Stones and The Doors are now part of the establishment their musical idols once challenged, and many of those artists have matured with them. This has led to collaborations both intriguing and jarring, from David Bowie’s bankers transforming the royalty streams from his back catalog into tradable debt securities, to UK bank Virgin Money printing Sex Pistols’ album covers on a range of limited edition credit cards. Hard Rock Park was driving at something similar: a new way to monetize a cultural phenomenon that had come to define a generation.
Binkowski, both a boomer and a rock and roll fan himself, knew he wasn’t just pitching to fund managers who controlled large amounts of cash. He was also talking to people around his age, who grew up with the same music as he did and would probably be excited that he had designed a rollercoaster with Led Zeppelin.
“The big seller was always the music,” he told me. “We were a project that was supported by the baby boomers within the industry. That was our base.”
The Hard Rock branding did more than just lend the project legitimacy—it tapped into a kind of collective identity. In terms of age, race, and gender, the Venn diagram of Hard Rock’s sweet-spot demographic and the kind of financiers Goodwin and Binkowski were pitching to was a near-perfect circle.
“It’s highly likely that the investors who were looking at this park were white, male and middle-aged,” said Margreet Papamichael, a director at entertainment consultancy CLEAR Associates. “And Hard Rock fits perfectly with white middle-aged men. That’s where the brand likely resonates most.”
Crumbling details from the grounds.
Hard Rock itself had invested no money in Goodwin and Binkowski’s project, however—in fact, it was charging them a fee to use its brand. This meant Hard Rock Park lacked the financial support of a more established company, but it also gave it creative independence.
According to Dave Cobb—vice president of creative development at Thinkwell, a themed entertainment consultancy that recently used Hard Rock Park as a case study for employee training—the park’s wacky design would have been difficult to bring to life under a larger corporate parent. “The license they got from Hard Rock was fairly unfettered,” he told me. “It didn’t get caught in the corporate machine, and that allowed them to do some of these wildly creative ideas that we sometimes don’t see when we’re dealing with intellectual property.”
Many of these ideas were provocative, especially for a family attraction in conservative South Carolina. It wasn’t just the obvious examples, like the acid-trip ghost train or the psychedelic carousel called Magic Mushroom Garden; the park was full of little details that raised eyebrows. A section of Life In The Fast Lane, a rollercoaster named after the Eagles song, rolled past a sculpture of a pregnant woman whose belly was pierced from the inside by a baby making the hand-horns gesture. Restaurants included the “Eat Me” Diner and a fish-and-chips stall called The Cod Piece; a rock-focused tribute to a famous Michelangelo fresco led to accusations of blasphemy.
Not a single aspect of the park escaped the creative team’s meticulous theming. An empty guitar rack just past the ticket booths offered “free air guitars,” while in the bathrooms, a reflective screen that looked like a mirror messed with people’s perception by replaying their movements on a five-second delay. The ATMs were plastered with quotes about money from famous rock songs; even the circuit boxes were decorated with lyrics about electricity.
Some fundamental aspects of the business plan, however, missed the mark. Hard Rock Park’s marketing campaign leaned on extravagant gimmicks, like hiring the Beatles’ last remaining Magical Mystery Tour Bus and towing it around the country on a promotional tour in 2007. The park’s goofy TV ad was heavy on rock and roll attitude but light on information about the attraction, and management failed to strike marketing partnerships with businesses in the area, overlooking the fact that Myrtle Beach was primarily a regional destination where venues thrived on local cross-promotion. Almost every local I talked to about the park said the $50 ticket price was too high, and complained about the lack of discounts for children and locals.
Young, who runs his own entertainment company and has painstakingly dissected the park’s failures on Theme Park University, argues that the management team was blinded by their own brilliance. “They were so convinced they had this slam-dunk of a park,” he told me. “They overestimated what the brand was and what it could bring in. Even if the economy was doing okay, between their marketing and their pricing they would have had an uphill battle.”
The park’s adventurous theming did, however, turn out to be a great recruitment tool. As construction neared completion, Hard Rock Park hosted a huge job fair, promising thousands of positions. Applicants flooded in. “People lined up for hours to get in for interviews,” said Shana Bury, who worked there as an entertainer and accompanied me on my walk around the site last November. “Everyone loved the concept—they loved the brand.”
Management gave many senior positions to out-of-towners who had already established careers elsewhere, but plenty of junior employees also came from outside the local area. “In my mind, it was like we could be the new Disney World or Universal Studios,” said La Vaar Willis, who was 19 when he left his family home in Virginia to join the park as an area manager. “I saw myself maybe making a career out of this.”
Former employees told me the park was a fun place to work, especially compared to other theme parks. The dress code was a particularly big draw: unlike many big Orlando parks at the time, management didn’t discriminate against piercings, tattoos, or wild hairstyles. They actively encouraged them, and let staff wear what they wanted, so long as that included their standard-issue Hard Rock Park shirt. “They wanted to show that we were all part of the show and our own character,” recalled Joshua Liebman, who worked at the park as an operations manager.
A cast of costumed entertainers was given even more out-there outfits, from female palace guards in bearskin hats and skimpy tunics to a mascot dressed as a punk-haired British bulldog named Winston. The most iconic of these characters were the Bear Metal Family—Heavy Dad, Maiden Mom, Glamor Girl, and Speed Boy—who wore silver shoulder pads and black and white face paint in a nod to KISS. They even had their own specially composed theme song, opening with the lines: “Look out Yogi / Step back Smokey / Country bears are too hokey-pokey / Goldilocks wants a pack that rocks!”
The park’s workers embraced this wackiness. It made them feel like they were part of something unique, said Yvonne Grissett, who worked there as a chef and later created a Facebook group for ex-employees. “I loved when I was at Hard Rock Park,” she told me. “You just don’t feel that at a lot of jobs. Most jobs, it’s just a job. Hard Rock was a life.”
Left: Shana Bury, a former employee of Hard Rock Park / Right: A Hard Rock Cafe in Myrtle Beach
Thousands of visitors turned up for Hard Rock Park’s grand opening in April 2008, drawn by concerts from the Eagles and the Moody Blues. Theme park nerds flocked to the Led Zeppelin coaster, which was made by renowned Swiss firm Bolliger & Mabillard (“The Maserati of the rollercoaster world,” as Binkowski put it). Todd Davis, a telecoms engineer and theme park fanatic from Charleston, bought a season ticket; he told me the Led Zep ride felt like “gliding on air.”
But there are only so many die-hard rollercoaster aficionados in the world, and big-name concerts are an expensive way to attract visitors: Goodwin told me the Moody Blues’ gig cost roughly $250,000. Soon after opening day, it became clear the park was struggling. “You could tell by mid-summer,” said Bury, who often worked the front gates as part of the Bear Metal Family. “Hardly anyone was coming in.”
Attractions like rollercoasters are built to thrill, but a lot of their impact depends on people: the adrenaline kick provided by a big coaster is enhanced by the tension of waiting in line and watching others go before you. This leads to a negative feedback loop if attendance is low, said Papamichael, the entertainment consultant: Fewer visitors means less excitement, which leads to shorter stays and less money spent at gift shops and restaurants. “Not only are you not getting the maximum impact of each ride, you’re doing them all in a very short timeframe,” she explained. “Everything falls out of balance for a theme park the minute that length of stay isn’t there.”
The management team revamped its marketing effort halfway through the season, partnering with local businesses for promotions and even handing out free tickets, according to former employees. This had some success, but it wasn’t enough—as the summer wore on, senior executives shortened the park’s operating hours and began to let employees go. Those that remained anticipated the worst: Willis told me he and his coworkers used to go together to job centers to explore other options. “We saw the writing on the wall,” he said.
Left: Brendan, a biker hanging around the Hard Rock grounds. Right: A Hard Rock-branded guitar pick.
Behind the scenes, Goodwin was talking to investors about restructuring the park’s finances.
Borrowed money is typically paid back using cash from operations or by taking out new debt. But Hard Rock Park had already exhausted its cash reserves, and it was quickly becoming clear that its meager earnings could barely support its existing debt, let alone any additional borrowings. According to court filings, the park generated barely $21 million of income in 2008—not enough to pay interest on its debt and cover credit extended by suppliers, which together totaled more than $30 million.
Businesses that are struggling with debt often choose to file for Chapter 11 bankruptcy, essentially a tool to keep a business active while reorganizing its financial obligations so lenders can be paid back over time. After initially approaching lenders for extra credit, Goodwin eventually opted for bankruptcy. But on September 15, 2008, just as he was preparing the necessary filings, the $640 billion investment bank Lehman Brothers filed for Chapter 11, signaling that the housing bubble was finally bursting. Goodwin grit his teeth and filed Hard Rock Park’s bankruptcy papers a week later, just days before the biggest single-day drop the US stock market had ever seen.
The collapse in markets made reorganizing the park’s finances a lot more challenging. Restructuring a business requires faith that it can be turned around and a willingness among its various stakeholders to give it the chance to do so, both of which were lacking for Hard Rock Park. The slowing economy weighed on its already dismal attendance prospects, while the simultaneous credit crunch saw lenders pull back, unwilling to take on more risk. Hard Rock Park had been a dicey proposition at the best of times, when the economy was booming; in 2008, with multi-billion dollar investment banks faltering and world leaders scrambling to avert a global financial meltdown, it didn’t stand a chance.
“We couldn’t force people to come through the gate in the worst tourist market in 10 years, and we couldn’t force people to restructure at a time when pretty much no one was doing any investment,” said Goodwin. “We were at the bottom of the totem pole.”
As hopes of a restructuring dwindled, Hard Rock Park’s owners put it up for sale. In February 2009, a group of new owners—including a Moscow-based development company called MT Development and some of Hard Rock Park’s initial equity backers—announced that they had agreed to buy the park for just $25 million, less than a tenth of its valuation barely 10 months earlier.
To comply with court rulings around the sale, the new owners re-skinned the park with generic theming, renaming it “Freestyle Music Park.” The Led Zep coaster became Time Machine, the Eagles ride was renamed Iron Horse, and Nights in White Satin turned into Monstars of Rock. A water ride formerly known as Reggae River Falls became even more of a mouthful: Polly Nesian’s Splash Bash. All Hard Rock-branded merchandise had to be destroyed, including thousands of limited edition pins, a niche but sought-after collector’s item.
The park’s new management team claimed the more generic theming would be more inclusive and family-friendly, and pledged to work more closely with local businesses to market the park. They cut ticket prices, offered promotional discounts, and added a kids’ section. It seemed to be working: former employees said attendance was initially better than at Hard Rock Park, and at the end of the summer, Freestyle Music Park’s president, Steve Baker, said the park was “here to stay.”
But consumers were watching their budgets as the recession dragged on and the average local income dropped by nearly $1,000. Attendance once again began to sag, and a legal battle with the former Hard Rock owners over intellectual property was soon followed by a host of lawsuits from suppliers chasing missed payments. In February 2010, Freestyle Music Park’s lawyers announced the venue would not reopen.
The descent of the park into its current derelict state was long and messy. The owners continued to grapple with investors over debt repayments and asset seizures; a local Christian non-profit group tried to crowdsource funds to buy the property and turn it into an education and entertainment complex, but came up short; the owners later sold four acres of the park to Medieval Times, the castle-shaped dinner theater on the neighboring plot, which used the land to graze and exercise its horses. Legal filings show that the rest of the site remained the property of FPI MB LLC, a holding company set up by Freestyle Park’s owners.
In 2012, the shuttered park appeared in an episode of the NBC series Revolution, set in a post-apocalyptic world with no electricity. At the time, the rides were still there, but in the following years they were sold off bit by bit. Some of the smaller ones went to other parks within the US, but the larger ones were bought at pennies on the dollar by Vietnamese group Sun World. The Led Zeppelin coaster is now the star attraction of Sun World’s Dragon Park in Ha Long; it has been entirely rethemed save the loading area, which is still housed inside the giant airship.
By 2015, the property was more or less in the same state as it was when I visited last November: entirely abandoned, save for a single security guard patrolling the grounds. While exploring the site with Burton and Bury that weekend, I met three local teenagers who were goofing around near the lagoon; they said police occasionally roll up and ticket intruders or move along homeless people sheltering in the remaining buildings, but mostly leave the park alone. Brendan and his biker friends told me they hung out in the parking lot most weekends, pulling donuts and practicing tricks; they said members of Christ United, a megachurch across the road, sometimes look on disapprovingly, but have never intervened.
The bikers all thought something should be done with the old property, although they didn’t know what. One complained that Myrtle Beach developers had no imagination: “They’re tearing everything down and building all these hotels,” he said. “Everyone’s going to get sick of just staying places. Let’s find something for people to do.”
In early 2017, former Myrtle Beach mayor John Rhodes was in talks with a group of developers from China who wanted to turn the old park into a Chinese cultural village, with a market and restaurants. He vehemently defended the idea against local opposition, even telling the Charlotte Observer that he saw a future where Mandarin would be taught in the area’s schools. A year later, the deal had collapsed.
Last December, shortly after my visit, a local business owner named Robert Guyton purchased the site for $3.5 million. A local attorney and the former chair of Myrtle Beach’s Chamber of Commerce, Guyton admitted last month to breaking political campaign finance violations in 2009. He didn’t respond to messages seeking comment about his plans for the site, but locals have speculated over possibilities ranging from a drive-in movie theater to an RV park; Bury, who drives past the site almost every day on her way to work, told me earlier this month that it still looked as abandoned as ever.
In the movie adaptation of The Big Short, Michael Lewis’s account of the financial crisis, fund managers Charlie Ledley and Jamie Mai visit a shooting range during a finance conference in Las Vegas, as guests of a trader from Bear Stearns. The fund managers are betting against the housing market, and trying to work out whether the people selling mortgage bonds realize—or care—that the market is in danger of collapse. They ask the trader if he thinks rising home loan delinquencies will lead to losses on the bonds he sells; he replies, “Don’t be a buzzkill, dude.”
“They said it couldn’t be done. So we did it anyway," Jon Binkowski wrote in a book available in the park's gift shop.
The creators of Hard Rock Park also ignored dissenting voices. “They said it couldn’t be done. So we did it anyway,” Binkowski wrote in The Park that Rock Built, a commemorative book sold in the venue’s gift shop. The park’s financial backers fell for the creative concept and ignored the harsh realities of the market, just as investors were too mesmerized by the intricacy of multi-layered mortgage bonds to remember that their value ultimately depended on over-levered homeowners making their monthly payments. An old adage in investing is that there is no such thing as bad risk, only bad pricing—in both these cases, the risks were heavily mispriced.
It’s not uncommon for developers to borrow money to fund construction projects, but such deals are rigorously built around demand: Hospitals, airports, hotels, and apartment buildings are generally launched into well-established markets. The fact that lenders were willing to fund an extravagant and completely untested concept like Hard Rock Park epitomizes the mentality of the pre-crisis boom. As investment banker William Welnholfer told the Wall Street Journal in 2009: “Only in 2005 or 2006 could you raise this type of financing without some reasonable assurance that the business plan would work.”
A decade on from the financial crisis, the economy has not just recovered but boomed. Along the way, investors have poured billions of dollars of equity funding into fast-growing sectors like technology, hoping to own a piece of the next Apple or Amazon. And as the memory of the last credit-fueled meltdown has faded, debt investors too are being drawn in by the hype around these kinds of businesses. Huge companies like Uber, Tesla, and WeWork have little in common with Hard Rock Park, but they are similar in one important sense: They’ve all managed to borrow money from typically conservative investors without demonstrating positive cash flow. And as with the park, they’ve done so partly by appealing to the kind of emotional impulses—optimism, enthusiasm, fear of missing out—that the people looking after our pensions and savings are supposed to resist.
Economists now say the post-crisis economic expansion has peaked. Housing markets are slowing again, and companies are warning of lower profits. These are just some of the factors that contributed to a frenzied selloff in financial markets during the last three months of 2018. This increased volatility isn’t a disaster, and there are many other influences at play, from global trade tensions and political uncertainty to the increasing role of computer-driven trading in the stock market. But it does suggest investors have been underpricing certain risks, and for many people, this triggers anxious memories of the months before the 2008 crash.
Weeks after my conversation with Jim outside the gates of Hard Rock Park, I found myself staring at aerial photos of the abandoned property as if they were magic eye pictures, waiting for some kind of hidden pattern to emerge. Over time, I began to see the site as a kind of blast crater: a physical imprint of the market’s implosion in 2008, and a timely reminder that some parts of the country are still struggling to recover from the last recession.
Perhaps there’s some truth to that. But maybe it’s simpler—a bit more rock and roll. Before driving off that afternoon in November, Jim paused to offer one last reflection. “Here’s a phrase that I never really cared for, but I’ve heard so much,” he began, before taking an irreverent bow.
“It is what it is,” he said. “And it was a great time.”
Will Caiger-Smith is a writer and reporter based in New York. You can find him on Twitter.
Will Warasila is a photographer based in Durham, North Carolina. You can find more of his work on his website.
Tagged:MusicNoiseydebtLed ZeppelininvestigationHard Rock Park
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