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Thanksgiving Point — hub of activity

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LEHI — Ten years ago, the flat lands surrounding Point of the Mountain were nothing but alfalfa fields and sagebrush.

Today, the area is hot property for housing developments, popular businesses such as Cabela's and a soon-to-be college campus. It's all located on the sprawling property of what has become a landmark gem in Utah County — Thanksgiving Point.

"We've got a lot going on," Thanksgiving Point chief executive officer Mike Washburn said of the myriad activities that happen on a daily basis on the property.

That sentiment might be an understatement.

Aside from 55 acres of manicured gardens, one of the largest dinosaur museums in the Western hemisphere and gourmet restaurants, the establishment boasts weekly cooking, gardening and art classes. Thanksgiving Point also hosts functions ranging from business meetings to wedding parties.

The daily activities of the quasi-resort, where moviegoers also can catch a flick, are only a part of the packed schedule at Thanksgiving Point. A massive flashing sign high above I-15 constantly advertises a new event at the location.

Among other things, there's the Utah County Fair, a tulip festival, outdoor concerts, corn mazes and Christmas lights that all help draw visitors to the property.

Last year approximately 1.2 million people visited Thanksgiving Point, the most of any year since the gardens opened in 1996.

So far this year, attendance at the Museum of Ancient Life is 40 percent higher than it was last year, and the museum's most popular month, December, is still to come.

Washburn says word of mouth is bringing the whole area attention — and not just from Utah County. Located in Lehi, on the border of Salt Lake County, the property's museums and gardens pull visitors almost equally from both ends of the counties and across the country.

Earlier this year, Washburn said, the gardens had only been open a month when they received tourists from every state except one.

"I'm sure they've showed up by now," Washburn said.

Still, Thanksgiving Point, which is a nonprofit organization, is supplemented by founders Alan and Karen Ashton, who made a fortune through successes with the invention of Word Perfect.

The Ashtons bought some 750 acres on which to build Thanksgiving Point as a gesture to show their gratitude for the blessings they received. The Ashtons embarked on the project in 1995.

"We realized the Ashtons' mission for Thanksgiving Point," Washburn said. "It is a resource for the community where people can come and have a unique, one-of-a-kind, hands-on experience, and learn and grow in a safe and beautiful and comfortable environment."

Since Washburn came to Thanksgiving Point three years ago, his main goal has been to preserve the aim of the establishment. Namely, to give back to the community.

His other goal has been to make the enterprise, which costs between $15 million and $20 million to function, self-sufficient.

"I was brought on to make Thanksgiving Point sustainable," Washburn said. "We've made tremendous progress. The Ashtons have historically been supporting this on their own, but in the last three years, we've invited other companies to help by way of sponsorships."

Washburn said Zions Bank, Larry Miller and XanGo have all become corporate sponsors, which has helped the enterprise come closer to moving from red ink to black.

The resort also has started to focus on its membership program. The business sells different levels of memberships with annual fees, ranging from $175 for a family to have access to the entire grounds, including discounts on merchandise and food, to $35 for a family to have access to child-friendly Farm Country.

Charlotte Ducos, who recently was visiting the Museum of Ancient Life with her children and a family friend, said she became a member of Thanksgiving Point so she could come more often, get discounts for her friends and save money.

"My kids like to come here," said Ducos, from Eagle Mountain. "It's something else to do that's educational, instead of just watching a movie. They move around, and they're enjoying things."

Ducos, who recently renewed her membership, also said it seems Thanksgiving Point is always adding something new to the museum and the grounds.

That's something that thrills businesses in the surrounding area.

"I honestly believe Thanksgiving Point has been that core catalyst in really catapulting the area," said Heather Miller, president of the Lehi Chamber of Commerce. "It has lit a fire to the whole area."

According to Washburn, Thanksgiving Point only plans to grow.

For example, already in the works are plans for a children's museum, which is scheduled to be completed within three years; a Marriott hotel, to be on location within one year; and construction for the Mountainland Applied Technology College campus, to be under way in a year.

"I personally think they're just beginning," Miller said. "It's going to be a great future for them. . . . The whole region is just going to be incredible. It's going to be powerful."

E-mail: achoate@desnews.com