Meadville Tribune

April 22, 2014

It’s hard to believe park will turn things around until secrecy ends

Meadville Tribune

— Even if a deal is struck to save Conneaut Lake Park from a pending sale to pay off back taxes, it appears unlikely that the park will succeed unless its new managers pledge themselves to transparency and public accountability.

This is perhaps one of the most significant among the many challenges the park’s current trustees face along with the Economic Progress Alliance and Crawford County Board of Commissioners as they try to work out a new management structure for the park and somehow pay off nearly $1 million in overdue taxes.

It is a great irony — and a terrible flaw in state law — that the park is operated as a public trust on behalf of the people of northwest Pennsylvania but is not required to have open meetings or even issue periodic financial and activity reports.

In the early days of the park’s operation as a trust, the members of the Trustees of Conneaut Lake Park held to the spirit of the arrangement despite having no legal obligation to do so. Public meetings were held, documents were made available and board members cooperated with media requests.

That changed under the current board, however. This is the group that allowed the Beach Club and Dreamland Ballroom to go uninsured, making recovery from arson fires impossible. This is the group that is in and out of court in disputes with outside vendors it has hired to run parts of the park. And this is the group that has been forced to hand over financial documents as part of a state Attorney General’s Office investigation.

This group won’t hold public meetings or provide documents. There is no sense of obligation to report to the public and limited cooperation with the media.

Because of the destruction of historic structures, the disputes, the rumors and the vacuum of information, this board has done incredible damage to the once vital stream of goodwill that existed for the park. It used to be that if the park needed help, you’d have to fight your way through a throng of unpaid volunteers just to get into the action for a few moments. Today you’re more likely to get a roll of the eyes and snarky comments about who will really benefit from the work. And sadly but understandably there is a growing impression that doing business with the park involves taking a major risk.

We’re all for giving promising plans to revive the park a chance. The park plays a huge role in attracting tourist dollars to Crawford County and it directly and indirectly supports countless local jobs.

But secrecy has allowed mismanagement, suspicion and erosion of good will. This must end. The park is a public trust. Unless the park’s managers start living up to the spirit of that phrase, it seems unlikely that the facility will win the support it will need to crawl out of the hole caused by years of questionable leadership.