Who the Hell is Wild Willie?

An up-from-nowhere theme-park promoter has set off a land rush in tiny Canton - and he's just gotten started with his crazy schemes

For those tending to harbor excessive euphoria, there are cautionary tales--recent ones--nearby. A developer who built several trading pavilions a few miles north of Canton last year hasn't reopened so far this spring. "I don't know what the reason was," says Martinek dismissively.

While located in the heart of the First Monday district, Wild Willie's development lies outside the city's boundaries--and its zoning restrictions. "That's the beauty of this thing," Martinek says, with a twinkle in his eye. That means Martinek, not the city, makes the rules on Wild Willie's Mountain. He puts in specific deed and lease restrictions requiring shop owners to maintain a certain level of tastefulness. But at the same time, no one can dictate what kind of costly public facilities--such as bathrooms--he must provide. For now, the mountain only has temporary outdoor bathrooms--the mobile closets spotted on construction sites. The 1,000-seat theater--within the city zoning limits--will have a full sewage system and full restroom facilities. Since it's next door to the mountain, it will make its accommodations available to the shoppers as well, Martinek says.

Wild Willie's critics are quick to point to his lack of proper toilet facilities and his freedom from city fire codes. "I don't know what would happen if you struck a match at the top of that mountain," says attorney Monning. Martinek insists that his projects meet the somewhat laxer county codes, but concedes that fire issues are a concern. "If it's meant to be, it's meant to be," he says. He adds, "These buildings are all insured."

The naysayers also wonder out loud--but not for attribution--whether Martinek's development will prove profitable for the store owners. They know he is making money from his leases. But they question whether he is providing the amenities that keep shoppers coming back.

Martinek says he has that covered, too. By adding the theaters, lodging, and dining facilities, he says, the Wild Willie team will be creating fresh reasons for visiting Canton. "There's little to do in Canton besides shop," lamented Austin writer Paul Burka in an October 1993 article in Travel Holiday. Burka warned readers that he himself had opted to stay overnight in nearby Tyler.

If all of Wild Willie's schemes become realities, a livelier Canton clearly lies ahead. But another Branson? Since its theaters bearing the names of Roy Clark and Charley Pride went up, the Missouri town has grown--hosting some six million visitors a year, who occupy 22,500 hotel rooms and fill 31,500 restaurant seats.

"Canton will never become a Branson," Martinek declares. "But it can be its own thing in its own right. And it can have some of that. The people who go to Branson are Texans."

If Martinek gets his way, the next travel correspondent who comes to Canton--and a few, including one from Southern Living Magazine and one from ABC television, are supposedly scheduled to arrive soon--will have a vastly different story to tell.

With his mountaintop empire growing, Martinek--perhaps heady with success--is focusing partly on personal imperatives in seeking to launch a theater for country music: His wife has sought, with little success, to launch a country singing career of her own.

Says Wild Willie, in the finest tradition of legendary kingmakers: "I finally will build the stage for my wife to sing on that I promised her years ago.

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