Conneaut Lake Park poised for comeback

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Suzan Anton has strayed from Western Pennsylvania, but she has always returned.

One destination has drawn her home: Conneaut Lake Park, the 122-year-old amusement park and summer resort in Crawford County. Growing up in Pittsburgh, Ms. Anton, her parents and her sister traveled 100 miles north every summer to the resort, where they stayed in cottages and boarding rooms, swam in Conneaut Lake and exchanged tiny metal tokens for a turn on the rides. These are Ms. Anton's "dearest memories," she said.

The intervening decades have tarnished those memories, as the park has fallen into disrepair. Property taxes mounted as weeds flourished. In 2008, a fire ravaged the Dreamland Ballroom. Just last year, flames tore through the park's banquet hall and adjacent bar.

In 2004, Ms. Anton moved from Bloomington, Ind., to Meadville, a city neighboring Conneaut Lake, to try to help save the park, but things just kept getting worse -- until now.

On June 12, the Crawford County Court of Common Pleas approved a settlement plan between Pennsylvania Attorney General Kathleen Kane and the trustees of Conneaut Lake Park that dismissed the current trustees and introduced a new governing board, which has entered into a management agreement with the Economic Progress Alliance of Crawford County. The new trustees will discuss plans for the park Wednesday at a public meeting at a Conneaut Lake fire hall.

Developers said those plans include short-term cleanup to ready the park for the summer months -- painting, removing dilapidated fences, uprooting stray tree stumps -- and long-term redevelopment, transforming the summer amusement park into a cultural destination that can earn revenue year-round.

"We have to convert the park from a 10-week business model to a 12-month business model, or we will not achieve self-sufficiency," said Mark Turner, executive director of the Economic Progress Alliance. That means making the park a public asset, with a new lakeside performing arts center, updated exposition arena and outdoor amphitheater, he said. Commercial ventures will remain, such as the hotel and amusement park, with the possible addition of condominiums.

First, though, park grounds need to be cleaned and made safe for the summer. Greg Sutterlin, who operates Hotel Conneaut, already is billing 2014 as a "comeback summer" for the park, with the Fourth of July at the center of the festivities. Mr. Sutterlin has booked country music singer Dustin Lynch for the holiday and has lined up other artists for dates throughout the summer. Fireworks will be launched from a barge in the middle of the lake July 5, he said.

Ms. Anton is quite pleased with it all.

"This is the best news that I have ever heard," she said. "It's gone downhill every year until now. This is the turnaround year."

Conneaut Lake Park isn't in the clear, though. The new trustees will be responsible for unpaid property taxes totaling about $900,000. The property still is slated for sale for those back taxes Sept. 26, unless the new board presents a plan to pay them, said County Commissioner Francis F. Weiderspahn Jr.

Community support for the local landmark has Mr. Turner feeling optimistic. If surplus property has to be sold to meet financial obligations, it will be sold, he said.

"It's not just a save-the-park initiative but a strategic priority for the economic development of the region," Mr. Turner said.

Isaac Stanley-Becker: or 412-263-3775.

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