by Phil Yacuboski
When Judi Bendixen opened her gift store along Route 940 in Tobyhanna Township 40 years ago, the Poconos region was known for honeymooners and the place where heart shaped tubs made their debut.
“The honeymooners today don’t come here to the Poconos, they go to Tahiti or Greece,” said Bendixen with a chuckle, who sells home décor, clothing and kitschy gifts. “That whole tourism part with the honeymooners is long gone.”
But while the honeymoon business has declined, the region is capitalizing on skiing, four immense indoor water parks, golf resorts, wineries, a casino, horseback riding and lazy hiking trails to take in the fall foliage or summer breeze.
Add to that a new $350 million entertainment complex, set to become the latest Poconos mega-resort, called Pocono Springs Entertainment Village.
“It’s the largest destination entertainment project in North America,” said John Jablowski, manager for Tobyhanna Township, where Pocono Springs will be built. “It will be 1,200 new jobs, not to mention construction jobs with an annual economic impact to the Commonwealth of around $400 million.”
In April, Colorado-based Alberta Development Partners announced plans to build the 600,000-square-foot resort, complete with a hotel, upscale shopping, dining and a $100 million aquarium. The 175-acre property is now just a forest bordered by State Routes 380, 940 and 314 and the Kalahari resort to the south.
Kalahari is the largest waterpark in the United States and this project will be bigger, according to Jablowski.
“We’re excited to help bring this home,” he said, adding when he learned of the interest in the project, he worked to secure the deal coming together about one-and-a-half years ago. He said he immediately thought it would be a perfect complement to the already growing region, which he believes can sustain the new development.
According to the development company, there will also be a movie theater, a Ferris wheel and hot air balloon rides. Themed restaurants will be part of the dining experience.
And that’s just the first phase of the project – a second is also planned, although not yet developed.
“They wanted access to the interstate system, a growing community and infrastructure. We are blessed by the geography here, but we are also blessed by our geography of our location,” Jablowski said, adding the Pocono region and its closeness to New York City, Philadelphia, New England and Baltimore make it ideal to attracting customers.
“That proximity to between 40 to 50 million people is very important.”
Even with all of the development, albeit fairly recent, Jablowski believes the Pocono region can handle a mega-resort.
“Without question,” he said.
“Certainly it was a different time, when honeymoons, marriage and heart shaped tubs took a different place in our society. We still have that label as a tourist destination, but we don’t celebrate honeymoons like our parents once did. The family structure is different and we can take advantage of that.”
The Poconos is the leading attraction in Pennsylvania, according to the Pocono Mountain Vacation Bureau.
“This is going to add significantly to our product,” said Chris Barrett, the bureau’s president.
He explained this project is a different piece to the tourism puzzle than the other projects, and it will bring upscale retail and dining not yet seen in the Poconos.
“When you look at the investment that’s been placed in the Poconos in the past five to 10 years, I think you’d be hard pressed to find the same type of investment in tourism products elsewhere in Pennsylvania,” he said.
And with that development, he said the Poconos can handle the growth, mainly due to its location.
“A large percentage of the U.S. population lives 150 miles from here,” he said.
Barrett also said unlike the Hershey and Lancaster area, where he last held a similar position, the Poconos is a year-round destination.
“Who comes to watch the leaves turn brown? We have a bit of everything,” he said.
Construction is expected to begin in May of 2019 and the attraction isn’t expected to open until 2021.
Regardless of the timeframe, Judi Bendixen is excited to see what’s next.
“It’s like the Poconos have reinvented themselves,” she said. “And that’s a good thing.”