austin_dern (austin_dern) wrote,
austin_dern
austin_dern

We rattle this town, we rattle this scene

Conneaut Lake Park: I have given you the setting. And the experience of riding the things in it. And given some sense of the gift shop's offerings, as well as the things people offer the park. And also about the fires that have done so much damage to the poor park. I must finish now, and return to posts that are at least a tolerable length or hidden behind cuts.

So, the park's Trustees are cagey, at least, about whether people should donate money to the people who're spearheading the reconstruction of the fire-ravaged parts of Conneaut Lake Park. This sounds initially odd, particularly for a park that's been so dependent on the support of the community's volunteers to keep going at all. That then goes to suggest that there's tension between factions trying to control the park. But that's also simple and understandable, so, that doesn't seem to quite fit what's happened with the management of Conneaut Lake Park. I'm attempting to understand the whole structure myself, and bunny_hugger probably has a better idea of it (if nothing else she better understands the way parks are usually run), so please accept this as a rough approximation of how the park's gotten to where it is now. The story, of course, features a key role for a man with a shady past and a pile of gold coins.

The generic history of a local park like this runs something like: picnic grounds in the late 19th/early 20th century, putting in some roller coasters and other attractions in the 20's, hard-hit by the Depression and the War, perhaps expanding in the 50s with Baby Boomers needing places to bring their kids that's cheaper than Disneyland, and then a nasty decline in the 60s and 70s when either the family that's owned it for decades runs out of money and shuts it, or when they stagger on until Six Flags can buy the park and then shut it. As best I can tell from Wikipedia and from CLP Junction's fan-created history of the park, Conneaut Lake Park more or less fit that script at least through the 70s, possibly into the 80s when they added the Splash City Waterpark. Conneaut Lake Park sold off 19 of the carousel horses in 1989, replacing them with Carousel Works horses fresh from Mansfield (implying they were probably among the first horse purchasers for that company, incidentally).

But selling off the carousel is typically the three-year warning that a park is going to close. In 1990 the park tried to shift to being gated, with an admission fee (and parking fees; we certainly didn't pay for parking in 2013), which is the sort of thing most of the last free-admission parks were doing around that time, but here, it apparently was badly received. (Also, the summers of 1990 and 1991 were lousy park weather.) Through the early 90s the park kept selling off rides, and by 1995 it was bankrupt. It didn't open that season, and probably any other park would have thrown in the towel at that point, the way Detroit's Boblo Island did.

However ... then came in a new owner, a convicted felon named Gary Harris who despite convictions for rape, receiving stolen property, trafficking in forged money orders, and being called ``Doctor Death'' by a grand jury witness, bought the park. According to the Washington (PA) Observer-Recorder of 3 July 1996, he ``put up $100,000 in gold coins as a good faith deposit'', which is exactly the way to prove your good intentions while you're appealing your sentence of 27 months in prison and $155,000 in fines and back taxes, which were then under appeal, and are facing new charges of attempted tax evasion, falsifying corporate tax returns, obstruction of justice, bank and bankruptcy fraud, and racketeering. The Observer-Recorder goes on to quote Michelle Ott, then running the Sunset View Motel, as saying, ``It kind of raises your eyebrows a little bit. But look at the casinos in New Jersey. They're run as successful businesses, but who are they owned by?'', which to me proves that whatever it is that makes Conneaut Lake Park so, was already evident by then. And tu quoque to you too, Ms Ott. (The article also states that Conneaut Lake Park opened in 1892 as a Pennsylvanian version of the Chautauqua Institute, and that the park boasted of launching the career of Perry Como. This delights me almost as much as the gold coins do.)

Come 1997, Harris, on his way to jail, donated the park to the people of northwestern Pennsylvania, creating a trust which would, if Conneaut Lake Park existed in a fully sane world, have put it into a happy if staid senescence, becoming something like Rye Playland, a park that could exist indefinitely and stably except for those moments when sufficiently many people get outraged that the county collects taxes even though it owns an amusement park. It didn't turn out that way. Possibly there are unwise aspects to hitching your cash-strapped amusement park to a four-time felon convicted of money fraud. On the other hand, what rational process would have kept the park going, then?

Harris would, according to Wikipedia, go on to state that while he gave the land to the people of northwestern Pennsylvania, he kept for himself a 99-year lease on the rides and attractions, which makes for a bit of a problem. An article in the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette of 16 February 2003, warning that Conneaut Lake Park might be out of comebacks, reports that after serving his 27-month sentence, Harris denied the had donated the park to the people anyway.

According to the Post-Gazette of 21 July 2004, among other things, Harris diverted about $400,000 of park revenues to himself, and failed to pay taxes; the tax bill would keep growing and staggering on, and it's probably the biggest non-fire-based threat Conneaut Lake Park faces right now: it's got a debt of about $900,000, between the unpaid taxes and interest. I don't know that this is all traceable back to Harris's involvement, but according to the February 2003 article at that point it owed $280,000 in back taxes and it's difficult to suppose they're not connected.

But the park carried on, reopening in 1997 with five rides purchased from the Old Indiana Fun Park. I mention this because somehow the Conneaut Lake Park weirdness stretched out to Old Indiana Fun Park: it had opened in 1983 as the ``Middle Country Renaissance Festival'' and grew into a picnic area and family amusement center. The park closed in 1997, after the killing of one and paralyzing of another passenger on the miniature train ride, a ride which had passed two state inspections in the previous three months although the safety inspector admitted he wasn't qualified to inspect amusement rides. The train had derailed at least 79 times in the two months before the fatal accident and managed as many as fifteen derailments in a single day. Old Indiana Fun Park owners admitted negligence but denied knowing about the ride's condition.

The rest of the park was purchased by, who else, Six Flags. (Well, Premier Parks, as the corporate overlords were known.) Six Flags used the park for years as a kind of resting site for rides they were planning to move from one park to another, without ever actually opening it. So if you just looked at the list of roller coasters in the park for, say, 2002, it looks like a thrill park; it just didn't have any patrons or operators or anything.

But Conneaut Lake Park took away some of the rides of this weird little park, and this would seem to coincide with the most recent little era of new rides and attractions. Still, the existing heavy debt load and the burden of lawsuits in Harris's wake would be challenging for any park to manage. As best I can tell, the trustees for the park weren't up to it. As late as 2005, according to the Beaver County Times, the whole board hoped to resign after concluding there was no way for the park to operate; a judge refused to let them quit in favor of a three-to-five member board. The article quotes the trustee's attorney as saying the park had `no computerized program to prepare financial reports'', which seems bizarre, considering that among other things it was 2005, a time when computers were almost able to manage the work of tracking finances for multimillion-dollar enterprises.

At this point I feel myself lost in a swamp of financial matters. As best I can make out the current situation, there are several parties each with their pieces of Conneaut Lake Park: the trustees who own the park and owe quite some debt on it; Adams Amusements which runs the attractions; the Conneaut Lake Hotel, which hasn't burned in an important way since 1943; Park Restoration LLC, which held a lease --- and which had insured --- the beach club and dockside which burned in August; and there's also another group which runs the Halloween ``Ghost Lake'' feature.

As best I can make out the squabbling, too, it's all parties who have a real desire to see the park continue and thrive. It'd have to; you couldn't have stuck with this park for the quarter-century it's just had if you didn't want it to thrive. But it's also gotten divided up in ways that almost ensure people work at cross-purposes: Adams, for example, appears (appears! I don't know enough of this at first hand) to put all the revenues it gets into keeping the rides functioning, which, you can certainly understand. The Hotel, meanwhile, appears (again, as best I understand it) to want the park to spend more money on repairing the facades and pavement and getting the whole burned-out postapocalyptic feel taken care of. Park Restoration, I believe, was responsible for things like the Journey/John Mellencamp tribute bands which bring flocks of bikers to the park on Sundays; but, the Hotel (if I have this right) feels that flocks of bikers coming to the park on Sundays also scares off families and kids and all that. You can see how this problem starts intractable and gets only worse from there. Park Restoration had insurance on its structures, possibly a half million dollars in payout, but they want the land of their complex and the hotel separated into new parcels independent of the main park. This would allow them, presumably, to survive if the park went under entirely; but by subdividing the land, it also makes further partition thinkable. No matter; the county, with a big unpaid tax bill, might demand the money first.

It's hard to say exactly how bad the finances of the park are; as the local press points out --- with a vehemence and determination that reminds me of nothing quite so much as the determination with which golden-age-of-pulp stories had the newspaper editors determined to bring down the Lone Wolf because sure he's been cracking all Inspector Farraday's toughest cases for fifteen years now but he still used to be a jewel thief and he'll surely show his true self again --- that the trustees don't make very lavish financial reports. Actually, the claim tends to run more like ``they don't publish any financial information'', which seems like a much sterner claim. Fan forums, such as at clpjunction.com, are only a little enlightening, as so much of the discussion of park finances turns into squabbling over what exactly is meant by a ``corporation'' and other such fights between people who aren't actually experts in finance law arguing about what finance law means. As best I can tell, the park's total debts seem on the order of three to five million, while (per the 2005 Beaver County Times article above) annual revenues are on the order of two million. It seems like with some lucky breaks and some forgiveness this ought to be manageable, if tough.

Crawford County has slapped the park with what would seem like a death blow: a tax sale, if the outstanding $900,000 debt isn't settled or renegotiated. The deadline is about a year off, and, well. It's obvious that this would kill any normal park. But so would the at least three bankruptcies I've been able to find out about, so would the fiasco over the lease, so would the shut-down years or the years when they had to borrow money from local car dealerships to open at all. In 2013, if the clpjunction.com forum commenters are right, they managed to open without needing a loan.

I don't see a rational way out of this doom. But it's not a park that lives by rational ways. It's had a quarter-century of living some sort of financial or managerial opera. It gets discovered by people who go in not knowing what they might see, and come away still not knowing what they had seen but knowing that they loved it, as just this past week Susan Glaser of the Cleveland Plain Dealer did. Maybe there's some millionaire looking for a way to be kind to a community who'll read this and be inspired. Maybe it'll become a Kickstarter amusement park. Maybe the laws of probability will contort yet again and find the park some way to stay afloat.

Maybe someone will pop in who happens to have $950,000 in gold coins and, I hope, a pure spirit.

Trivia: For the Tennessee Centennial Exposition, Fred Thompson produced the Giant Seesaw, a sort of dual crane, with a 75-foot-high fulcrum, which lifted alternating viewing cars up 150 feet in the air. Source: The Kid Of Coney Island: Fred Thompson and the Rise of American Amusements, Woody Register.

Currently Reading: Weeds: In Defence of Nature's Most Unloved Plants, Richard Mabey.

Tags: conneaut lake park, pennsylvania parks trip, trip report
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