CONNEAUT LAKE Park plays up nostalgia factor to draw crowds

The court-appointed custodian of the park says he views it as 'a community park with amusements.'
CONNEAUT LAKE, Pa. -- The paint on the Blue Streak may be fading, but the 64-year-old wooden roller coaster is ready to go when Conneaut Lake Park opens this weekend for the 2001 season.
The wooden framework didn't get its traditional coat of blue paint this year, which would cost more than $40,000, but it did get a $26,000 overhaul with wood and bolts replaced where necessary.
The 109-year-old park has fallen on hard economic times in recent years as more people choose to visit large amusement parks with bigger, faster and scarier rides.
Conneaut Lake needs to develop a new image, focusing on its true niche in the community, said Herbert Brill, appointed by a Crawford County Common Pleas judge as custodian of the park to help restore it to financial stability.
Role: People shouldn't look at Conneaut Lake as an amusement park, he said.
"We're a community park with amusements," he said, explaining why he prefers to refer to the park as Conneaut Lake Community Park.
He also likes the slogan "Once Upon a Time ... Once Again" as a way to draw people back to the park.
Finances: The park has a net worth of about $7 million in its land, buildings and rides, and known liabilities of nearly $1 million right now, he said in a report presented to the court earlier this month.
That debt includes nearly $700,000 in back property and amusement taxes and sewer fees, as well as $250,000 in investor certificates sold earlier this year to raise capital to get the park ready to open this weekend, Brill said.
Those certificates are payable Sept. 1 at prime plus 1 percent interest, he said.
There are also some unknown liabilities, Brill said, noting there are 11 pending lawsuits filed against the park by various groups and individuals, including some vendors.
Although Brill is confident Conneaut Lake will win those cases, they do present an unknown potential cost, he said.
The park generates more than $1 million a year in revenue and provides between 250 and 300 full- and part-time jobs each summer.
It's a nonprofit corporation; all money will be channeled back into the facilities, he said.
Sewer work: Brill is working on a plan to cut a big chunk of that back debt by replacing the park's antiquated sewer system, which also serves 160 private homes.
He has enlisted the help of local planning and sewer officials in seeking grants and loans of about $1 million to replace the 50-year-old lines and turn the system over to the Conneaut Lake Municipal Authority in exchange for forgiveness of $280,000 in back sewer fees.
The cost of getting the park open this year had been estimated at $250,000, but Brill said the actual expense was closer to $400,000 because previous managers neglected necessary preventive maintenance on the property.
"We'll be ready," said Gene Rumsey, a former Crawford County commissioner who is now general manager of the park.
Attractions: "We've had a lot of good people helping us," he said as he led a tour of the grounds, noting that all rides have been rebuilt and inspected and five new amusements will be added this season.
The Sky Thriller, The Himalaya, bumper cars, The Tempest and a pair of climbing walls will be in place, bringing the number of children's rides to 13 and the number of adult rides to 20.
The park also has its own water park, including slides and a river float, and it features the turn-of-the-century Hotel Conneaut, which still attracts guests, banquets, high school proms and diners even though it has no air conditioning, room telephones or heat.
It has had a number of improvements this spring, including new plumbing, paint and some furnishings.
The park also features acres of picnic space and its own camp park.
Its Beach Club attracts diners and dancers and is the site of frequent concerts.
Brill said it is the last public access spot to Conneaut Lake itself. All other land around the lake is in private hands, and the park is the only place where the public can get to the water.
Nostalgia: Rumsey said nostalgia is the focus to bring people back to the park this year, and he hopes to attract as many as 150,000 visitors.
For the first time in years, people will be able to drive through the park to the Beach Club from 5 to 10 p.m. Fridays, he said.
"Take a Ride Back in Time!" is the theme, he said.
Rumsey credits Brill, who was appointed by the court in February, with having a knack for pulling people together to work toward a common goal.
"I'm really pleased," he said.
There is a misconception that the park has gone through two bankruptcies in recent years, Brill said.
That's not true. Two groups of park operators, including some Boardman, Ohio, men who formed Conneaut Lake Park Management Group, have gone bankrupt but the park never has, he said.
"This belongs to the public. Is it worth saving? You're damn right it is. This is like a member of the family, but it has to pay its way," he said.
Paint job: And don't worry about the paint job on the Blue Streak.
Friends of Conneaut Lake Park will hold a roller-coaster marathon, "The Blue Streak Challenge," on July 30 to help raise money for that cause.

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