Fate of theme park remains on roller coaster ride

Efforts to reopen a closed Kentucky amusement park have taken a roller coaster ride for three summers, and now there's a new twist as the state seeks out more would-be operators even as a group of local business leaders floats a proposal to revive the attraction.

Kentucky Kingdom, a regional summer fixture for years with rides and a water park, was idled after the 2009 season, when Six Flags pulled out after filing for bankruptcy. The 60-acre park at the state fairgrounds in Louisville resembled a ghost town Friday as throngs of people headed to the midway and other attractions at the Kentucky State Fair.

The inactivity on a prime piece of property has worn on the patience of state leaders. The Kentucky State Fair Board, at the urging of Gov. Steve Beshear, decided this week to seek formal offers from companies interested in bringing the park back to life.

"I just want to see what we get," he told reporters. "And then, by golly, I think it's time for us to decide, 'OK, we got a good deal of some kind. Let's move forward and have a Kentucky Kingdom or whatever we want to call it.' Or if not, then let's figure out what else we're going to do with that property. Because I think we've been fooling with this thing enough. I think it's time to fish or cut bait."

The state thought it had finally landed a new park operator earlier this year, but the deal with the family that owns and operates Holiday World in Santa Claus in southern Indiana fell apart in June.

The park now has another suitor, a group of four prominent local business leaders led by developer Ed Hart. It presented outlines this week of a $40 million bid to reopen the park in 2014.

The group got a jolt, however, when the fair board decided to issue a request for formal offers to operate the park.

"Time is the enemy here," Hart said Friday. "It's important to get this park up and running as soon as possible. We believe it will take at least 18 months to do that."

The group would put up $10 million of its own money, supplemented with a $30 million loan, he said. The plan is to refurbish the existing rides and pump millions into new rides and attractions, Hart said. The water park would also expand.

"We would return it to the state's No. 1 paid tourist attraction," Hart said. "All it needs is money, and our plan provides that money."

One potential obstacle is the group's request that the state guarantee its loans.

Such a guarantee would put taxpayers "on the hook" if the venture didn't work out, Beshear said.

"That's very troubling to me," the governor said.

Hart said he's confident the park would be a success. The keys, he said, are ample money, solid operations and clever marketing, and he promised his group would meet all three criteria. But the state could still recoup its money if it didn't pan out by selling off the $40 million worth of investments his new group would make in rides and attractions.

Hart said his group was disappointed the state will pursue other offers to reopen the park. He said he hadn't talked with his partners yet about whether to join the competitive process, but said the group will consider doing so.

Harold Workman, president of the Kentucky State Fair Board, said he has heard from multiple groups interested in operating Kentucky Kingdom since June, when the apparent deal to resolve the park's future fizzled.

Workman said he expects at least some of them to make proposals.

If everything goes smoothly, a lease to run the park could be negotiated by year's end, he said.

Hart was more doubtful that the long-idled park would draw more suitors.

"Anybody who was going to express interest would have expressed interest over the last three years," he said. "They haven't."

The economic stakes are big for the city and state as the former park's future is decided.

Hart cited a study that indicated a reopened park would pump an estimated $3 billion into Kentucky's economy over 20 years, generate more than $200 million in new taxes and more than $30 million in parking revenue for the fair board.

The park was a popular seasonal employer for the area's teenagers, as well.

Tony Ehlers, of nearby Lanesville in Indiana, said he and his wife used to take their children to Kentucky Kingdom. They'd like to do the same for their grandchildren someday. "I hope they get it together," Ehlers said.

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