Conneaut Lake Park condition still sparks debate

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CONNEAUT LAKE -- Conneaut Lake Park is showing its age. Sidewalks and pavement along the midway of the 121-year-old park have been lifted and cracked by tree roots, and there's a foot-long hole at the foundation of the gift shop.

A building at one end of the midway has crumbled; only its facade still stands.

The condition of the park, opened as Exposition Park in 1892, is at the center of a debate about who should restore it. Operators of the park hotel and Beach Club said they should be able to restore and operate the entire park, including the amusement rides, but their proposals have been refused by trustees. Greg Sutterlin and Steve Popovich, of Park Restoration LLC, have mounted an online campaign urging the state attorney general to remove park trustees and appoint new caretakers.

"The only way this will work is if the park is one entity, with Hotel Conneaut and Beach Club revenues used to fuel restoration of the park area," Mr. Sutterlin said.

The condition of Conneaut Lake Park shows that trustees aren't doing their job, Mr. Popovich said. "It's an eyesore," he said. "Who wants to bring their family to a park that looks like this?"

Cosmetic improvements haven't been a priority, said Jack Moyers, president of the park's court-appointed board of trustees.

Putting in a new $350,000 water treatment system for the park, paying down park debt, and restoring rides have been priorities instead, Mr. Moyers said.

Conneaut Lake Park has been operated as a public trust since 1998, when former owner Gary Harris deeded the park to a volunteer board of trustees.

Current trustees, appointed in June 2007 by Crawford County Court Judge Anthony Vardaro, inherited control of a cash-strapped park that had failed to open that season. "We started with $840 in hand, $3 million in debt and no electricity on most of the property, in bad economic times," Mr. Moyers said.

Trustees opened and operated the Beach Club that summer and also opened park grounds for the community's 2007 Pumpkin Fest. They pieced together poor financial records, researched liens against the park, and promoted the park to companies that might operate it, Mr. Moyers said.

"We tried to lease out the park as a whole, and had three or four companies come up and look at the park. But that was in 2008, when the economy was starting to spiral, and we really couldn't find anybody to take it on," he said.

Trustees instead leased the Beach Club and Hotel Conneaut to Park Restoration LLC and leased ride operations to amusement companies, including the current lease holder, Adams Amusements. The company restored the Blue Streak and reopened the ride in summer 2011. The wooden roller coaster had been closed due to disrepair since fall 2006. Trustees helped raise money for the work.

Trustees are looking for new revenue opportunities and new ways to engage volunteers, Mr. Moyers said.

He said trustees are confident that, with the public's help, the park in time will be fully restored and fully profitable.

"We have to believe that, or else we'd just all take our balls and go home," he said. "We know what the park was, and we know what it can be, even if it feels at times like we're building a business from bare bones with no resources except a lot of begging."

Park Restoration LLC has applied to trustees to operate park rides, improve the midway and repair crumbling or closed attractions, including Splash City, the park's water park area, which has been closed since 2009. The group has been turned down each time, Mr. Sutterlin said.

"Everything in this park can be saved, but you need to do it before it's too late and everything has to be rebuilt," he said.

"Instead, it just gets worse every year," Mr. Popovich said.

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