No fun: 'Planet' sold for - bummer! - offices

When the Charlottesville Fun Park– known for most of its business life as Planet Fun– closed down last summer, the groans of disappointed children could practically be heard echoing up and down Route 29.

But bad news for kids seeking birthday party fun may be good news for grownups seeking new office space. Development firm Stonehaus, perhaps best known for building the trendy Belmont Lofts, purchased the nearly five-acre Berkmar Drive parcel on August 30 for $2.4 million, and plans to develop the site into a mix of commercial, retail, and office space.

"There's a need for affordable office space throughout Charlottesville," says Chris Schooley, project manager for Stonehaus. "We're trying to provide as much office and commercial space as we think the market will hold."

In addition, says Schooley, his company has options on two adjacent properties north of the Planet Fun.

"We're working on a master plan that combines all three into a nine-acre site," he says.

Though the site's former owner, Ray Shackelford of Fredericksburg, did not return the Hook's calls, it's clear the kiddie business had its share of problems.

The developer faced some well-publicized hurdles thrown up by the Albemarle supervisors, who feared that noise from the bumper boats and go-carts might bother some neighborhoods. But the cash registers may not have been noisy enough.

Opened in August 1996 as Adventure Land: Family Fun Park, the facility cost $3.2 million to develop, according to a contemporary account in the Cavalier Daily. It offered mini-golf, batting cages, and go carts, even bumper boats and an indoor arcade.

Shackelford purchased the property for $2.1 million in 1998, and by May 2002, it was on the auction block. Despite an assessment of $2.3 million, no one offered the minimum $1.1 million bid, according to a report at the time in a monthly publication called Commercial Real Estate Update.

For the last few years, the business has been leased by Colin Rolph, the developer known for the Charlottesville Ice Park and for the bitter dissolution of his D&R Development partnership with Lee Danielson in 2003.

Rolph did not return the Hook's call, but Frank Stoner, owner of Stonehaus, says Rolph's lease on Fun was up in December 2004, and he declined to buy the business at that time.

Charlottesville, says Stoner, was simply not the right environment for a business like Planet Fun.

"This market is not quite big enough," he explains, "and I think the second significant factor is from a weather standpoint."

In Myrtle Beach, where similar businesses thrive, warm weather allows the business to operate 10 or 11 months of the year. In Charlottesville, there are "at least three months," Stoner says, where it's too cold to use the outdoor equipment.

Schooley says it's now full steam ahead for the new, if less "fun" plan.

"We're hoping to have the master plan completed and in front of the county for zoning next spring," he says. That master plan includes building a road connecting Berkmar Drive and Route 29 at Schewel's furniture store to help "alleviate traffic issues on that side of town."

Any chance they'll include go-carts, mini-golf, or batting cages in the final plan? Even a measly video game?

"I don't think that's a possibility," says Schooley.

Sorry, kids.

Charlottesville Fun Park grows up.