Blue Streak

Contributed photo

The American Coaster Enthusiasts donated $10,000 to the park's iconic Blue Streak roller coaster for new wheels on its cars.

Conneaut Lake Park's total operating revenue continues to climb significantly, but officials of the nonprofit amusement park caution there's a long way to go before it's able to exit bankruptcy.

This season, Conneaut Lake Park and Camperland, its camping park, saw an 18 percent growth in total revenue compared to 2017.

Total revenue was $838,387.34 for this year compared to $707,547.24 in 2017 — a gain of nearly $131,000. That's on top of 24 percent revenue growth in 2017.

"People are getting more confidence in the park and they're realizing the family value — that's gratifying to us," Bill Bragg said of the increase in revenue.

Bragg is chairman of Trustees of Conneaut Lake Park, the nonprofit corporation that oversees the amusement park's operations.

Trustees filed for Chapter 11 federal bankruptcy protection in December 2014 to reorganize the park's debts. Its Chapter 11 bankruptcy plan was approved by U.S. Bankruptcy Court in September 2016.

"We could petition to come out of bankruptcy, but Trustees have to make sure we're on good solid financial footing to make sure it's appropriate when we do it," said Jim Becker, executive director of Trustees. "People are starting to believe it has legs."

Both Bragg and Becker point to increased revenue and other factors as signs of growing public confidence in the park's operation.

The sale of wristbands — for amusement rides and the Splash City water park — went up 21 percent for the year. The park had $520,157.69 in wristband sales this year compared to $428,471.03 in 2017 — an increase of nearly $92,000. 

The park's gift shop income jumped 45 percent in 2018 to $65,552.57, up about $20,000 from 2017's total of $45,311.26.

While some new products were added in the shop, Becker said he felt it was a good sign of public confidence in the park.

"People don't buy T-shirts and sweatshirts of places that they think will go out of business," he said.

Conneaut Lake Park also is getting significant donations of both money and time from various groups, Becker said.

The American Coaster Enthusiasts donated $10,000 to the park's iconic Blue Streak roller coaster for new wheels on its cars.

"That was a significant expense that Trustees didn't have to spend money on," Becker said. "Groups like that care about the park. If the park wasn't doing well, we wouldn't see donations from those groups."

While it has taken several years to pare down Conneaut Lake Park's millions of dollars in debt by a significant amount, the progress has been substantial.

More than $1.3 million in overdue real estate taxes, interest, fees and penalties owed to various local governments was paid back in the fall of 2017 through the sale of excess lakefront property and insurance proceeds from a 2013 fire that destroyed the Beach Club night club.

Debt owed to secured creditors is down to $1.3 million after beginning at $2.9 million when Trustees filed for bankruptcy in 2014. As part of its bankruptcy plan, Conneaut Lake Park is paying $30,000 quarterly to its secured creditors. Money for it has to come from operating revenue — meaning the park has to generate income to make the payments.

"We've had to take incremental steps (in improvements) because we couldn't generate income ourselves at first," Bragg said. "We were looking at the worst problems first and taking care of them. We were reactionary. We couldn't plan. Now, we're finally starting to do that."

"Over the years, our first priorities were to make sure the rides are running and that the rides are safe," Becker said. "Then, it was getting the water park open," which happened for a full season in 2017.

"Everything we did (to generate income) went right back into the park," he said.

Another hurdle the park has had to overcome is keeping its rides operating so they continue to generate income. It has not been easy at times as the rides are 50 years old or even older.

"The crew has kept rides up and running with minimal downtimes this past year," Becker said. "With these vintage rides, we've even had to make our own parts."

In addition to the wheel improvements made to the Blue Streak, other work included a rebuild of the second hill for 2018. For 2019, the third hill of the coaster will be rebuilt, Becker said.

A picnic pavilion in Kiddieland is set to be in operation during the 2019 season while restroom upgrades are being planned.

"These are the things we have to do for the long term investment of the park," he said.

The next phase for Conneaut Lake Park is to start looking how to plan longer term projects, according to Becker.

Plans for the midway

One is trying to upgrade the midway area while still generating more income.

One significant step will be the addition of a Ferris wheel on the midway for 2019. It will be installed between the beach area and the large concession stand in order to give riders a view of Conneaut Lake. It will be a separate but minimal fee from the other rides, Becker said.

"We know there's work to be done on the midway. It's one of our priorities," Becker said. "But it's not going to be cheap. Buildings behind the facades need work."

The uneven pavement along the midway due to tree roots won't be addressed unless current trees are removed and some other type of planting plan is in place, Becker said.

"We're not going to do paving until we take out the trees, but it will take about $8,000 to $10,000 to do each to get into the roots, too," he said. "It does not make sense to do paving over tree roots."

"It's a challenge and we know that," he said of the midway. "How to dress it up and make it look good — that's high on our list."

Other upgrades such as the park's road and utility systems, which are private, may take millions to fund.

"To repave all roads is a couple million dollars without having to fix the subsurface," Becker said. "But, you'd want to do water and sewer lines underneath before that so you're not digging them up after you've paved. You want to upgrade water lines to have a 6-inch main line to the hotel and to the water park plus all the laterals to the homes and adding fire hydrants. It becomes a multi-million dollar project."

The park was able to do a small water project this year — upgrading its water storage tank for about $20,000 to stop leaks.

"We went from using about 200,000 gallons of water a day to 30,000 gallons," Becker said of the fix.

The park isn't eligible for most grants or loans for the utility upgrades because it's a private system rather than a municipal one, Becker said.

Camperland expansion

Another way to help generate more income in 2019 is an expansion of Camperland.

Plans include adding about 29 full-hookup camping spaces by spring. The first five are being readied now with another 24 to be added. It may add additional pull-through style camping spaces for larger trailers in a second phase.

"We knew two years ago we had to expand Camperland but didn't have the money to do so," Bragg said. "Now, we're able to do it."

The park is moving forward in other ways, too, such as using social media as a way to get the word out about Conneaut Lake Park at a low cost.

It used the website Groupon twice to offer discounted wristbands this past season and both times the offer was a sellout, according to Angela Annibale, director of business development.

"We had company picnics with Meadville Medical Center and Channellock Inc., too, which both brought more people into the park," she said.

Conneaut Lake Park regularly runs updates on park happenings through its own Facebook page, which has about 21,000 followers, she said.

Marketing promotions have been done with the Crawford County Convention and Visitors Bureau, state tourism officials and the Erie SeaWolves to generate interest in the park.

Conneaut Lake Park now is partnering with creative writing and graphic design students at Edinboro University of Pennsylvania. Graphics students are designing various signs for potential use while writing students are developing stories to help promote the park for 2019.

"By no means are we done," Becker said of improvements at the amusement park. "But, we've made some significant upgrades and taken some significant steps forward in the past few years."

Keith Gushard can be reached at 724-6370 or by email at kgushard@meadvilletribune.com.

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