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Kentucky fair board, group reach amusement park deal

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A group of private investors and the Kentucky State Fair board on Thursday reached a 50-year lease agreement for the shuttered Kentucky Kingdom amusement park with the new operators saying the facility should reopen in 2014.

The investment group, led by former park owner Ed Hart, pledged $20 million upfront and a promise to secure another $25 million in a loan to restart the state's largest amusement park.

"Barring an act of God, we're ready to go," Hart said.

The fair board-owned park, a regional summer fixture for years and a big employer of seasonal teenage workers, has been closed since 2009, when Six Flags walked away from its lease while undergoing bankruptcy reorganization. Since then, multiple plans and attempts to jump start the park fell apart.

The lease is the first step in getting the park reopened. The investors, including Hart, businessman and former gubernatorial candidate Bruce Lunsford, businessman Ed Glasscock and the Al J. Schneider Company, must finalize the bank loan and get tourism tax credits from the state. Those credits are expected to be approved within 90 days, Hart said.

The Louisville Convention and Visitors Bureau pledged $100,000 a year for five years toward the re-launch, the city of Louisville is granting the park $200,000 in cash and tax credits for a decade and the state is considering tourism tax credits.

The park operators are required under the lease to spend $13 million in 2013 and 2014 to get the park open. The group must spend another $7 million on the park through the 2016 season. From 2017 on, the group is required to spend at least $1 million annually on the park. Under the terms of the lease, the fair board will become owners of any new rides or attractions placed at Kentucky Kingdom.

Fair Board President Ron Carmicle said the lease for the public-private partnership means taxpayers won't have to shoulder private debt and gives the operating group a chance to succeed.

"This lease agreement is a fair deal for both our state taxpayers and for the investors seeking to operate the park," Carmicle said.

Hart said the financing essentially leaves the park debt-free.

"This allows us to take our cash and put it into the park," Hart said.

Hart said the operating group will move quickly to refurbish the rides and expand some attractions, such as the water park and plans to begin assessing the grounds early next month. All but one ride, a metal roller coaster that is in disrepair, will be reopened, Hart said.

Hart pledged to make Kentucky Kingdom competitive with Holiday World, in Santa Claus, Ind., and Kings Island in Cincinnati. Hart said Kentucky Kingdom admission would be "priced aggressively" to draw tourists not only from Kentucky, but also Tennessee and Indiana. Hart wouldn't give specifics on expected attendance, but said more than 1 million people should pass through the gates annually after the first three or four years.

"I think the pent-up demand for this park is just extraordinary," Hart said.

The lease announcement drew praise from city and state officials.

Gov. Steve Beshear called the lease a "shot in the arm" for local and regional tourism." Beshear and Metro Councilman Jim King expressed hope that the roughly 1,000 full-time and seasonal jobs the park brought to the area will return.

"The Kingdom is one of the keystones to our city," King said.

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