Saturday, May 26, 2007

Kessler's Helps Feed Storybook Land's Win-Win-Win Growth in Aberdeen, S.D.

The Company
615 6th Avenue SE
Aberdeen, SD 57401
Phone: [605] 225-1692

Founded: 1939
Employees: 275

Contact: Tim Kessler, Owner

The Business
Kessler's was founded by Tim Kessler's grandfather, a German who, at the age of 12, immigrated to South Dakota from Russia with a family of 12.

"He was a meat cutter at a butcher shop in Aberdeen when he decided to buy a small corner grocery store across the street from where we are presently located," reported Tim. "I'm third generation and the store is currently a 'chain of one.'"

In its first days, tiny Kessler's was staffed by Tim's grandfather, grandmother, father and aunt. Now, in its 56,000-square-foot space, the supermarket's 275 employees sell groceries, liquor, apparel, catering services, rug-cleaning equipment rentals, over-the-counter and prescription drugs, and provide dine-in and carry-out foodservice. Want flowers? Kessler's FTD Floral Shop is right next door.

The Buzz
Kessler's, AKA "Your Hometown Grocer," is a magnet for people who appreciate the affordable, one-stop shopping the store delivers 24 hours a day, seven days a week. In fact, one five-star review on Yahoo! Local -- mostly, about the store's "fresh produce," "great variety of products" and "genuinely friendly folks" -- came from a customer who drives 442 miles to shop at Kessler's.

"We've always been very high on customer service and value," said Tim. "My father was a pioneer in adding services that, in the 1960s and 1970s, were only found in the Twin Cities [some 270 miles away]. Today, our store has all of the services you would expect anywhere, including top-notch perishables, full pharmacy, and the largest liquor store in the state of South Dakota.

"We do have customers that drive well over a hundred miles, and I'm not quite sure I could tell you exactly why. Perhaps it would be a combination of lots of things, including our meat. Since my grandfather was a meat cutter -- my father was one, too, as was I -- we've consistently put a very large emphasis on high-quality beef in a day and age when everyone else is trying to take shortcuts and buy prepackaged meats."

The Partners
* Aberdeen Area Chamber of Commerce
* Aberdeen Convention and Visitors Bureau
* Aberdeen Parks, Recreation and Forestry Department
* Aberdeen Sertoma Club
* Glacial Lakes & Prairies Tourism Association
* South Dakota Office of Tourism
* Countless Aberdeen service clubs, businesses and individuals that have donated time, labor, materials and money to Storybook Land's ongoing, near-magical development during the past 30-plus years

The Catalyst
In 1971, Lincoln, Neb.-based Hoskins-Western-Sonderegger Engineers Architects was commissioned by officials of the then-named Aberdeen Park and Recreation Board to develop a master plan for Wylie Park, located one mile north of Aberdeen on U.S. Highway 281. Major features of that increased-use plan included improving picnic and playground areas, development of walking trails and zoo exhibits, and establishing a campground.

The firm's master plan also suggested the development of two interactive themed play areas: Storybook Land, which related to various books, fairy tales and nursery rhymes; and Land of Oz, based on "The Wonderful Wizard of Oz," by L. Frank Baum, who'd begun his career as a journalist in Aberdeen 10 years before penning the children's classic book-turned-Academy Award-winning film.

The Strategy
In 1972, Hoskins-Western-Sonderegger completed a separate master plan that focused on Storybook Land and Land of Oz. The firm's professionals described their vision: "The basic concept of Storybook Land and the Land of Oz is to provide children of all ages an area where active participation will create individual interest in each of the storybook and Oz characters presented.

"Storybook Land and Land of Oz will be a fantasy of design, color, animation and music that will delight young and old alike, with an outdoor stage of settings pertaining to fairy tales, nursery rhymes, and the Wizard of Oz."

The Process
Aberdeen's 40-member Sertoma Club immediately got on board to fund the Storybook Land/Land of Oz master plan, and then made a commitment to adopt development of the 10-acre theme park areas as their club project. Now, 35 years, 11,000 volunteer sweat-equity hours, and more than $500,000 later, Sertoma Club's 59 members are rightly proud of their integral role in creating one of the region's -- and state's -- most popular attractions. Each year, approximately 250,000 people visit the park, which is open daily, from 10 a.m. to 9 p.m., April 15 through Oct. 15.

"The Aberdeen Sertoma Club thought that the Storybook Land project would be a good fit for the club because of the huge potential for the Aberdeen community," recalled Bob Gruman, chairman of the club's Storybook Land Committee and just-named 2007 Sertoman of the Year. "At that time, the club members probably did not fully realize that the project would develop into a major tourist attraction.

"It should also be noted that most of the club members at that time had young families. That may well have been a contributing factor in the decision to adopt the project."

Other local service clubs have also been involved in developing Storybook Land, as have many individuals and businesses. By all accounts, though, Kessler's has represented Aberdeen's commercial sector most consistently and generously.

"My father first gave to this project in the late 1970s, when the park was just getting developed," Tim recalled. "I followed suit with many more of the projects that Doug [Johnson, director of Aberdeen Parks, Recreation and Forestry Department] and the Sertoma Club came up with. Each time, the park just got better and better. What started out to be a great idea by Sertoma has turned out to be a major attraction for Aberdeen."

About 10 years ago, Sertoma Club started to make their prized attraction available for wondrous wintertime viewing, too. Every holiday season, club members team with Aberdeen Parks, Recreation and Forestry Department employees to put up, operate and take down hundreds of thousands of lights and decorations that illuminate Storybook Land from Thanksgiving through New Year's. Approximately 25,000 visitors view Sertoma Club's Festival of Lights display annually.

In 2005, after raising $300,000, Sertoma Club had the latest ride installed at Storybook Land/Land of Oz. The Wizard's Balloon ride features eight festive balloons, which can accommodate up to 32 riders total. The balloons, powered by a hydraulic cylinder, slowly rise and rotate until they reach a maximum height of 32 feet. Once the ride reaches the top, the balloons continue to rotate to offer a panoramic view of the Land of Oz.

The Financials
Admission to the theme park is free. Profits generated from all Storybook Land/Land of Oz rides, concessions, gift shop purchases, sponsorships, etc., help to support future improvements at Storybook Land and the Land of Oz. In addition to Sertoma Club's generous support, matching grant funds and city funds, donations and in-kind contributions from Kessler's and other businesses have helped developed the theme park's infrastructure.

"The park does not generate a great amount of revenue, due to the fact there is no admission fee," Johnson noted. "The only fees charged are for the train, carousel and balloon rides, and for concessions. The gross revenue is generally about $250,000 a year. All profits from the rides are reinvested in maintenance and development of the area. The Sertoma Club and city hope to keep admission to the park free, due to the fact that it has been developed primarily with funds provided through donations."

How much has Kessler's contributed to Storybook Land's development? "I honestly don't know," Tim replied. "It would be tens of thousands, I guess -- but the dollars were put in over the years, so it's been much more gratifying than laborious. This is a great place where folks can take their families, have a great day, and spend next to nothing if they so choose; I think that's what makes it so great.

"The park has certainly come a long way since our first project of a 'homemade Captain Hook's Ship.' That project came about with lots of lumber and volunteers from our store putting together a bit of a crude rendition. Later, we tore that down and got a 'store-bought' version. It's pretty much the way the whole park just kept evolving. As time went on, it just got better and better."

Next up among Storybook Land's development plans: planning a new parking lot entrance, which Gruman is spearheading. "Sertoma members have come to identify with Storybook Land as more than just a project," he said. "Members have seen Storybook Land grow from an idea to a major community attraction for children and adults of all ages.

"There remains a lot of work and coordination to fully achieve our dream, though. For instance, we also plan to build a 4,000-square-foot visitor center along with a concrete plaza. It's expected to cost about $700,000, with a projected completion date in early 2010. There is also a lot of work yet to do in the Land of Oz."

The Upshot
Quantifying construction costs and revenues from rides, concessions, etc., is easier than estimating Storybook Land's spinoff economic-development value and worth to those involved in creating it. Still, those close to it see the attraction's benefits every day.

Directing the theme park's day-t0-day maintenance and beautification gives Johnson a wide-angle perspective. "There is considerable indirect revenue generated for our community as a result of the many visitors who travel to Aberdeen to visit the area. While they're in our community, they shop and puchase goods, which benefits us economically. There is also a significant economic benefit as a result of the marketing that is done both locally and and by the South Dakota Department of Tourism to promote Wylie Park and Storybook Land.

"The community is extremely proud of Storybook Land, and the community's financial support of the area is testimony to their ongoing commitment to develop this important asset. Storybook Land has become the signature attraction for the community, and the city's logo -- which is used by the Aberdeen Chamber of Commerce, Aberdeen Convention and Visitors Bureau, and others -- features the castle. The Chamber and CVB both market and promote Storybook Land as the premier attraction in Aberdeen."

For her part, CVB Executive Director Nancy Krumm knows a good thing when she sees it -- and Storybook Land is, indeed, a very good thing for Aberdeen. "Tourism is South Dakota's second-largest industry," she said. "We know that families who come to visit Storybook Land spend, on average, $122 per day. In 2006, visitor spending had a $46.12 million impact on our economy in Brown County."

Krumm added that, in 2006, Aberdeen visitors came from 45 states and 14 foreign countries. Most were families -- from tots to grandparents -- seeking a "great, family-friendly and economical vacation that will build lasting memories."

And the carryover benefits? "Tourism is about more than visitors. It is about jobs, our families, and our tax dollars," Krumm noted. "Money spent by visitors to Storybook Land helps fuel our economy. Every non-resident dollar spent in Aberdeen brings three pennies in tax revenue to the city, which is money not paid for by local citizens. These dollars, once spent, stay in our community and have a compounding effect that trickles down to every level.

"Visitor dollars help support community quality of life for our residents. They help support our recreational and sports facilities, our arts and cultural programs, and our community festivals and events. And, we have had business leads resulting from a visitor's positive experience in our community."

What does Krumm regard as Aberdeen's key selling points? "One of our biggest assets for tourism is our people!" she enthused. "We constantly hear what a friendly, helpful, safe and beautiful community we have. Our travelers feel welcome and wanted. Families and visitors have a wonderful experience here, making memories that last a lifetime. And our community partners and volunteers play the biggest role in making this happen."

When asked what jazzes her the most about Storybook Land, Krumm didn't miss a beat. "It's the look on people's faces, both young and old, when they realize what a treasure Storybook Land really is," she replied. "I have had people tell me they enjoy it as much as Disneyland. It truly is a family-friendly and affordable place to visit...Plus, the landscaping and the setting of the park is absolutely beautiful!"

Gruman beams when considering the part that Sertoma Club has played in developing the city's fantastic theme park. "There is no way to measure the personal satisfaction and pride that our members have gotten from this project," he said. "Storybook Land turned out to be a dream come true beyond expectations. I have never before witnessed such a display of support from the business community, individuals, service clubs and city officials.

"I'd like to make special mention of the great working relationship that we enjoy with the Aberdeen Parks, Recreation and Forestry Department and its employees, headed by Doug Johnson. They have been at our side since the beginning. The structures and grounds are always well-maintained and managed. Without this partnership, Storybook Land would not exist."

The Takeaway
Considering that he's a successful, third-generation super-marketer, one might anticipate that Tim Kessler tracks every single dollar. Not when it comes to community giveback.

"In a town the size of Aberdeen [population: 24,658], there are many needs," he explains. "I've always believed that being involved and giving is a civic duty. While there are so many things that I give to, Storybook Land has been one of the most gratifying. It's a place where you can go and see people totally enjoying the experience. Folks drive a long ways to come to visit the park, and the entire community has done an outstanding job in making it better and better.

"As far as putting an ROI on any of this... It's impossible, really, and I don't spend much time thinking about it. All I can tell you is that it gives me a 'warm fuzzy' and I'm glad I'm able to do it -- especially, to be a part of Storybook Land."

Last year, during the first-ever Storybook Land Festival, a bronze relief of Sertoma Club member Ben Benson -- an avid project leader, volunteer and benefactor of the theme park -- was unveiled. This year's Storybook Land Festival will combine with the popular Oz Festival, to be held on July 28, 2007. Some 3,500 people are expected to come and partake in the festivities.

Click here to begin planning a road trip to Aberdeen.

Sources:, "History of Storybook Land," South Dakota Office of Tourism [photo]

Capture Memories Using the Canon PowerShot A640 10.0MP Digital Camera.

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