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CRAWFORD COUNTY, PA. Officials lay out plans for Conneaut Lake Park



Published: Sat, January 1, 2005 @ 12:00 a.m.



For years the amusement park had to borrow money to open in the spring.

MEADVILLE, Pa. (AP) -- A historic but financially troubled amusement park could open this spring without borrowing money and begin paying off more than $2 million in debt if a judge approves a new financial plan, officials said.

Conneaut Lake Park's court-appointed board of directors and its chief executive officer late this week presented a plan outlining the 114-year-old park's financial future to Crawford County Judge Anthony Vardaro. It outlined how officials could open the park without a loan, pay down debt and secure a matching state grant, said board president Abe Finton.

The plan also suggested leaders should change the way they lease out parts of the park that make the most profits -- such as its midway stands and camper parking area, Finton said.

Falling into debt

For years, the park had to borrow money to come up with the $300,000 necessary to open in the spring, Finton said.

Operators have had revenue-based leases to run the park's midway stands and campground, but the organization needs to charge an upfront, flat fee for leases, Finton said.

If the park secures a matching grant from the state, a developer could build a hotel, allowing the park to morph from a summer attraction to a year-round resort, Finton said.

Vardaro, who oversees the amusement park's operations, had ordered its leaders to draft a plan and file it with the county's prothonotary office by Thursday so that the public, including the park's creditors, could read it.

Declining attendance

The park, about 85 miles north of Pittsburgh, was once a hot summer destination for travelers from western Pennsylvania and parts of Ohio. The home of the wooden Blue Streak roller coaster sits on the state's largest natural lake.

But by the early 1990s, attendance at the park declined. It closed for much of two seasons and twice changed hands during that decade.

Ohio businessman Gary Harris bought and reopened it in 1996. But a year later he was convicted of federal income tax evasion and other charges.

In early 2004, Harris, his wife and a business partner were convicted of using different corporations and trusts to hide income from Harris' businesses, including the park.

Harris gave the park to the community in 1997, but later claimed to hold a 99-year-lease to much of its grounds and ownership of several rides. By then, a court-appointed board and a trustee began to oversee the park.

The state Commonwealth Court in May upheld a ruling by a Crawford County judge that dismissed all claims made by Harris. On Thursday, the state Supreme Court refused to hear Harris' appeal, Finton said.

Harris' second lawsuit against the park has not been resolved, but if it is, the park will be able to get another loan, Finton said.

CEO Donald Kaltenbaugh said he hopes to consolidate all the park's loans so the organization can make a single payment toward its debt.

Vardaro has not yet scheduled hearing during which an attorney for the park will go over the plan with the judge in open court, Kaltenbaugh said.




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