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Saving Conneaut Lake Park

Where thousands of thrillseekers once squeezed into Conneaut Lake Park, portions of the historic space seem to have been abandoned for years.
The Blue Streak

CONNEAUT LAKE, Pa. -- There have been more ups and downs than its own Blue Streak roller coaster.

Where thousands of thrillseekers once squeezed into Conneaut Lake Park, portions of the historic space seem to have been abandoned for years.

The Tilt-A-Whirl sits empty.

The Music Express remains dormant.

Rusted metal is all that remains of the Round-Up.

The midway looks deserted with a dry water slide nearby.

But behind the struggles rests a deep history stretching back to 1892. And it could soon be gone forever.

Conneaut Lake Park, which sits in western Pennsylvania a short jaunt from the Ohio border, may be forced to close and the rides would be demolished.

"The park owes more than $900,000 in back taxes," ride manager Leonard Adams explains. "A lot of that is interest and penalties. This is something that was acquired over a 17-year period. So, it wasn't like this just happened last year."

As a result, Conneaut Lake Park has been alerted to a potential sheriff's sale of the property and its 24 rides.

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"The memories won't die, but the memories will stop, and I think that's a great loss to the community," Adams says.

There are four entities in Crawford County that Conneaut Lake Park owes that tax money to: Conneaut School District, Sadsbury Township, Summit Township and the county itself.

If they can't come up with the money, the park will disappear.

"What's going to happen is the same thing that happened at Geauga Lake, Chippewa, Euclid Beach, Idora," Adams says. "Once it's gone, it doesn't come back."

Since the land sits on the last publicly accessible spot to Conneaut Lake, developers are drooling to create condos and private living space where the park currently calls home.

With the sheriff's sale hanging over the park, coaster enthusiasts and fans from around the world are standing up to fight for Conneaut Lake's survival.

There's a plastic jug inside the park asking for donations. On a recent visit, it was filled nearly to the top with cash.

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There's a petition in the park's ticket office and one online asking all to sign to stop the sale.

"Conneaut Lake Park is a treasure!" Debbie Moy writes in the digital petition. "My mom took all her grandkids there every summer! Bring it back to the clean wonderful park it was at one time and I'll be taking mine, too! I love staying at the hotel and going to the beach, too! Loved the Beach Club and Midway!"

Dan Donahey echoed those sentiments with his signature.

"Once it's gone, it will never come back," he writes. "Work together and make it happen. Keep this park open."

Keeping the park's legacy alive is something Adams says the county should value.

"Even in the condition the park is in, the hurt condition, it's still the second biggest tourist attraction in Crawford County. … The park brings over $18 million worth of revenue to the area."

You can sign the petition to save the park by clicking HERE: http://bit.ly/WFZmLc

A team of people working to save the park have concocted a concept to keep it open.

Their proposal to the four taxing bodies involves a four-year plan to pay off the $900,000 in back taxes.

It's a plan Adams is hopeful will be accepted soon.

"It's not like we're asking something that's really unrealistic," he explains. "I think there's room for compromise. There's room for everyone to get together and say, 'We've got to save this.'"

Crawford County commissioner Jack Lynch says he believes it's a conceivable plan that could benefit the community.

"From our perspective, the county will get a lot more enumerative dollars in having a tourist destination there than from having private development. We still believe there is an opportunity there to re-position, to re-purpose the park on a slightly different model."

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Lynch adds that all four taxing bodies will hear details on the plan July 30.

Although park officials say there is no official date in which the park could face the sheriff's sale, multiple reports indicate it could happen by Sept. 26.

Within the coming weeks, Adams says the park should have its downed rides up and running again to 99 percent capacity.

With the park's fate in question, discussion of Conneaut Lake's best times have exploded.

"It's my first home, because it's been here forever," says Paul Hohman, a resident of Conneaut. "We're fixing the place up. We're going to retire here."

His family has deep roots with the park.

"I worked here," he explains. "Ran the Dodge 'Ems. My daughter worked here. She ran the Dodge 'Ems. … Our family has been coming up basically all my life."

He's not alone in that either.

Tyler Easton, a 14-year-old from Colebrook in Ashtabula County, says he has been coming to Conneaut Lake Park his whole life because his grandmother is a big fan.

"Yes it's small, but compared to others, I think it's really good," he says. "You can have just as much fun going on the Blue Streak as you'd have going on a coaster at Cedar Point or Kings Island. It's just as exhilarating."

Jackie Claus, who drives two hours to the park several times every month from Gibsonia, Pa., says Conneaut Lake is such a tight-knight park that many of the staff and ride operators know her by name, which you won't experience at many other places.

"I know Cedar Point has the world's tallest, fastest roller coasters, but it just doesn't compare to Conneaut," she says.

Having first opened its gates in 1892, Conneaut Lake is one of the oldest amusement parks. It's one of few amusement parks that operates on a pay-per-attraction basis with free entry.

Although it may be small in size compared to other parks like Cedar Point or Kennywood, it is filled with historically significant elements -- including the Blue Streak roller coaster.

Celebrating its 76th season of screams in 2014, the Blue Streak is a classic out-and-back style rickety wooden roller coaster.

Measuring up at 2,900 feet long, the Blue Streak hits a top speed of 51 mph within its 92 second journey.

HISTORY: Preserving Geauga Lake

"It is only one of two coasters designed by famed coaster designer, Edward Vettel Sr., left in existence," says David Lipnicky of the American Coaster Enthusiasts (ACE). "Moreover, it is an extremely fun and thrilling coaster with unexpected thrills. From its tunneled start, breathtaking first drop, speedy turnaround and classic camelback hills packed with air-time, Blue Streak packs a punch and is a whole lot of fun! Lastly, its track structure sports a unique design only seen on one other coaster in the world."

Although it offers the same name, this version of the Blue Streak is very different from the 50-year-old coaster at Cedar Point.

Just a few steps away from Blue Streak rests the creepy classic Devil's Den dark ride. Opened in 1968, Devil's Den takes brave riders on a twisted journey through pitch black hallways with spooky surprises along the way. Most famously, Devil's Den begins with a shaky climb up a small lift hill into the area known as the infamous "gum wall." Yes, gum wall. It's exactly what you think it is. For decades, riders have been sticking their gobs of gum on the walls -- and the aroma is thick.

Then, there's the Tumble Bug -- one of only two in operation worldwide. Initially installed in 1925, the Tumble Bug has local connections. Parts from the Tumble Bug at the long-closed Chippewa Lake Park in Medina County are used to keep Conneaut's version running to this day. The other Tumble Bug attraction is located at Kennywood park a few hours away near Pittsburgh.

Despite all its troubles, Conneaut Lake Park continues to push onward and has avoided its permanent demise for decades. As fall approaches, the park is moving toward its busiest time of year when 30,000+ guests fill the park in one weekend for the annual Pumpkin Fest. There's also its Halloween event, Ghost Lake, which features 13 haunted levels of fear.

In July 2013, the Travel Channel arrived at the park to film a one-hour special dubbed "Mission Amusement" in which several industry experts came to help revive the park. That special aired earlier this month for the first time, which sparked a new flame in coaster fans around the globe.

But there's still a lot that needs to be done.

The park has been plagued with problems, including a recent fire that destroyed one of the midway's popular structures.

Although it may look as if it's in the same abandoned state as Geauga Lake is today, there's still hope for Conneaut Lake.

"We have people making memories here," Adams says. "Today is a memory for someone. Today is a memory for me. … Something about this place just hooks you."