Evermore faces financial ruin after failing to pay contractors
“My wife [Patrice] and I have cried many nights over this project,” says Ken Bretschneider, founder and CEO at Evermore Park. “This is not a position we wanted or should have gotten into.”
Only eight years ago, Bretschneider invested more than $37 million (and counting) of his own fortune―largely from the sale of his previous startup DigiCert in 2012―to build a sort of live-action theme park in Pleasant Grove, Utah. He hired dozens of contracted construction workers to bring his medieval vision to life, but as plans became more and more grandiose, Bretschneider found himself strapped for cash and unable to make payments to the teams building the park.
Bretschneider claims he’s been fighting for additional funding―something he says has been hard to procure for a unique project such as this―but until he does, he owes millions of dollars in construction, mechanic, and landscaping fees to workers across the valley who have yet to be paid, sparking a number of controversies across the state.
Construction teams haven’t been paid
I first visited Evermore in June 2019 to write an article for Utah Business entitled “This is what Evermore is like.” I was intrigued by the magic of Bretschneider’s park and it was fun to dress up and interact with the characters, but it was hard to ignore the plethora of under-construction buildings. I felt it took away from the immersive experience Bretschneider intended to create.
At the time, Evermore had only been open for a few months and Bretschneider told me that the park was only 55-60 percent complete and that the developments would be wrapped up soon. “We are going to build all of these interactive shops and then we are going to build a manor that’s about 40,000 square feet,” he told me in a previously unpublished excerpt from that interview. He showed me the build locations and the skeletons of things to come, and he seemed excited about the new growth.
Now, if you visit the park, things don’t look much different than they did in 2019. Despite Bretschneider’s big plans, construction at the park halted months prior to our first interview and haven’t resumed consistently since. Instead of a picturesque fairytale landscape, Bretschneider is left with plywood skeletons and a seemingly endless supply of construction lawsuits and liens.
As of June 2020, at least five lawsuits have been filed against Bretschneider and the Evermore group by major construction companies like Sunroc, AGC Drywall and Construction, Geneva Rock, Mountain Point Landscaping, EME Mechanical, Kreativ Woodworks, and NFH Distributing (Beehive Brick and Stone). According to public records, the companies each claim they are owed between $28,000 and $400,000 from Bretschneider, the Evermore group, Millcreek Builders (the general contractor on the project), and other various third-parties.
The big companies aren’t the only ones desperate for payment. Smaller subcontractors who did work on the park have also filed a collection of more than 20 construction liens on the Evermore property. Manuel Fernandez, a subcontractor hired to do framing, says he had to pay for materials out of his own pocket when Bretschneider ran out of money to keep construction work going.
“We had purchased $20,000 of framing material that [Bretschneider] promised he’d pay for. When he didn’t pay, my wife and I had to drain our savings account to pay for that material,” says Fernandez. Since then, Fernandez says his family has been struggling to rebuild their savings.
“[Bretschneider] ran out of money to finish the park [and then] they begged the general contractor and hundreds of workers to keep working without pay,” he recounts. “[They promised] to pay us when their money came in. They begged, cried, and threatened; anything that would keep workers working.”
According to Fernandez, it was crucial to Bretschneider that the construction work at the park continue in order to hit their desired opening date in September 2018. Evermore needed to open in order to start turning a profit. “Ken and [his wife] Patrice walked around and promised [my guys] each individually that they would get paid if they just finished their park.”
Now some two years later, payment still hasn’t arrived for a majority of those workers. John Bragonje, the legal representative for Bretschneider and the Evermore group, says that of the dozens of legal claims filed since the park opened in 2018, only a few have reached a resolution. “There have been one or two resolutions,” he says, mentioning the amended lien with Tri City Nursery specifically. “[They were] smaller claims, and [they were amended] before COVID, but we have active settlement discussions with all of the parties.”
Lawsuits are piling up
According to Bretschneider, the general contractor hired to manage the project, Millcreek Builders, left most of the construction work on the property undocumented. Bretschneider says that because the construction work was undocumented, it was impossible to see when work costs began to exceed the savings he and his wife had set aside to cover work on the project.
“We hired a third-party consultant to help oversee the project. Our general contractor (like all licensed GC’s) was hired to oversee and manage the construction of our park and to keep timelines and costs in check,” Bretschneider claims. “It’s our position these critical responsibilities, for the most part, were not fulfilled especially further into the project timeline.”
The budget for construction at the park was originally between $5 and $10 million. Now, he’s not sure exactly how much he has spent. “It was difficult to understand the real numbers during construction,” says Bretschneider, mentioning that there was a lack of documentation for work done on the park. “We didn’t receive reliable ongoing numbers/projections regarding total completion costs.”
John Underwood, the owner of Millcreek Builders, disagrees that the problems were organizational. Underwood says there are more than 30,000 construction documents, contracts, etc. for the Evermore project―though those numbers cannot be verified due to the lawsuits currently pending. “Millcreek provided [Bretschneider] and his financial team with every single documentation of every type of construction happening at the park on a weekly basis,” he says. “What went wrong can simply be attributed to [Bretschneider’s] lack of funds.”
Underwood and his team of subcontractors first started work on the Evermore site in June 2017―building a greenhouse, tavern, watermill, mausoleum, the chapel, the Hobbit house, and more, according to Pleasant Grove public records. Underwood’s team worked on-site until February 2018―starting the fantasy cottage building, the train, clocktower, and several stone monuments―when Bretschneider first ran out of the funds needed to complete the construction work on the park.
Once Bretschneider caught up on his payments in May 2018, Millcreek and their team of subcontractors resumed work on the unfinished areas of the park in order to prepare it for the grand opening in September of that year. Underwood claims Bretschneider then ran out of money again in October 2018, shortly after the park’s grand opening. This caused Underwood to pull his crews from the worksite for good in January 2019 and he filed their first official complaint for lack of payment in February of that same year.
“We were completely transparent with every expense and every detail,” Underwood claims. “In fact, there was a financial meeting every Tuesday at 4:00 PM to go over the cost controls and to advise [Bretschneider] about where he was on budget and costs.”
Since then, Bretschneider and the Evermore group have elected to file a countersuit against Millcreek Builders for the alleged inadequate documentation as well as alleged general site mismanagement (according to court documents, superintendents were frequently absent from work sites), and defectory work, among a number of other things.
Despite the countersuit, Matt Osborne, legal representation for Beehive Brick and Stone, says that though named in his lawsuit, his client wouldn’t fault Millcreek for what went wrong on the Evermore project. “Beehive Brick would not say that John Underwood or Millcreek Builders misrepresented facts. They just would say that they have an obligation to pay,” he says.
“It was alleged that Millcreek Builders mismanaged the project, but we don’t believe it was mismanaged in regards to [Beehive Brick and Stone] because Bretschneider was there every step of the way. My client would tell you that Ken misrepresented facts. Payments started coming in late, and Ken promised to take care of it [by finding more funding]. So Beehive kept working, but the payment never came.”
Bretschneider, on the other hand, details in his countersuit claims that some payment was given to Millcreek but then never made it down to the subcontractors. “We did pay, we paid more, and again even more, it seemed like there was never enough money to finish construction,” Bretschneider claims. “We have to look through all of these, and there are tons of legal fees to defend, all while we are trying to keep the park running. It’s a catch-22.”
Without more money, Evermore won’t make it
Despite the high-dollar lawsuits and the associated legal fees that come with fighting such suits, Bretschneider remains optimistic that Evermore will recover, though he recognizes the struggle this has caused for everyone involved. “We actually do care about the subcontractors and suppliers and want to achieve settlement. We are honest people who pay our bills, but we were placed into a deep financial hole, which we are working diligently to climb out of.”
As he anticipates his coming court dates, Bretschneider plans to keep the park open with a smaller staff, even doing some of the landscaping work himself and offering “sweat equity” to park superfans to prevent future liens and save on maintenance and construction costs. In early June, Evermore announced its seasonal opening and welcomed guests throughout the summer months to enjoy the completed areas of the park while social distancing.
“Our goal this year was to break even and then COVID hit. We had a bank loan commitment that was going to facilitate us working out settlement with the contractor and subcontractors, but unfortunately, the loan was not closed due to the bank’s concerns related to the pandemic and economic disruption,” says Bretschneider. “We honestly want nothing more than to resolve these issues and make Evermore a truly magical and special place for people to work at and experience.”
Despite Bretschneider’s positivity, Underwood says that there is “still no solution.” As of July 2020, Bretschneider and the Evermore group still have dozens of active lien notices and more than five unresolved lawsuits. At this point, some of the lawsuits have been ongoing for more than a year and unresolved liens mean that construction workers still likely haven’t been paid. With a majority of court schedulings on hold due to COVID, many wonder if there will be a resolution at all.
“In our defense, we brought something great to the community, which has received national accolades for the original and unique entertainment content we deliver to our guests and the beautiful interactive park we designed and created,” Bretschneider says. “It’s hard. Our entire team has worked tirelessly day and night.”
Now he’s faced with a decision, does he sell the park and waste everything that has been done to pay those workers back, or does he keep the park open in order to work through that?
Osborne wonders if the predicament is about more than just money. “I do mostly business law,” he says, “and one thing I have learned is that there are lots of people who have great ideas who can promote great ideas, but so many of them have no idea how to get the dream from home base let alone to first, or second, or third. Our fear is that that’s what happened [with Evermore]. We don’t beguile his dream, we aren’t trying to make a point, we just want our clients to get paid.”