Politics
5:01 pm
Thu May 31, 2012

Ed Hart: Fischer, Beshear Dropped Ball on Kentucky Kingdom

Louisville businessman Ed Hart is dismayed at the delays in reopening Kentucky Kingdom, and he puts much of the blame on Mayor Greg Fischer and Governor Steve Beshear.

For the past few months, an investment group called Bluegrass Boardwalk Inc. has been trying to salvage the former amusement park. But officials confirmed this week that its planned reopening for next year is no longer an option because of serious  disrepair. The group's investors now say the earliest the park can open is 2014.

Two years ago, Six Flags abandoned the site due to bankruptcy and the state fair board spent almost 18 months negotiating with Hart to reopen the park. But those talks failed for reasons that have not been released.

Hart says the mayor and governor need to take a greater role in getting one of the city’s chief tourist attractions running again instead of offering excuses.

"I can't read their minds. The mayor, the governor, his people, legislators—everybody says: ‘absolutely we want Kentucky Kingdom reopened.’ Yet they do nothing about it. It’s the typical, political and bureaucratic words and no deeds,” he says. "The fair board keeps saying that opening Kentucky Kingdom is a number one priority. They said it in 2010, 2011 and again in 2012. Can you imagine how long it would take to open up if it wasn't their number one priority? It's ludicrous."

Bluegrass Boardwalk is made up of members of the Koch family, which owns a water-themed amusement park called Holiday World in Santa Claus, Indiana. The Koch family has a tentative lease agreement with the state fair board and an application for tax incentives with the city.

The ordinance before the Metro Council would create a taxing district at the fairgrounds that would give Bluegrass Boardwalk partners a rebate on their investments. If approved, legislation would amount to nearly $50,000 a year in tax incentives for developers.

"What we want to do is make it clear to the Koch family that we're supportive of them coming into Louisville and opening this," says Councilman Kevin Kramer, R-11. "Hopefully that will say to them we're excited about them coming, we know the good things that are coming and we are willing to help out if we can."

The ordinance returns up to 80 percent of the occupational taxes generated by the park to the investors. It has been estimated it will cost $16.5 million to reopen the park and that that price tag could balloon given the rising cost to renovate the site.

After examining the site, which has been in operation since late 2009, Bluegrass officials said the park's facilities were abandoned without consideration of future viability. Inspectors found proper winterization wasn't made and that several of the rides are unsafe.

Fischer spokesman Chris Poynter says Metro Government is doing what it can to leverage the deal and the mayor wants the park to reopen, but the city's hands are tied.

“We don’t own the property. It’s not on our land. We have no control over lease assignments, financing or anything. There’s very little we can do,” he says. "Obviously the mayor would love to see Bluegrass Boardwalk get open and get the park up and running, but again because the city does not control the land it makes it difficult for us to do anything other than be a partner through rebate of the occupational taxes."

Asked if delays in the park reopening was a failure on the part of state leadership, Poynter said that was a "loaded question" and WFPL should talk to the state.

The state fair board could not be reach for comment, but earlier this year President of the Kentucky State Fair Board Harold Workman told WFPL they anticipated the park would be open by May 2013.

Last fall, Hart pushed the General Assembly to issue a $20 million bond to help re-open the park after he secured nearly $30 million in private funds. Workman said negotiations failed because the parties were unable to come to an agreement on how revenue streams would be spent, but Hart says state and city officials simply ended the talks.

"The governor recognizes the importance of the former Kentucky Kingdom site and the economic impact it has on the region," says Beshear spokeswoman Kerri Richardson. "While it's disappointing to hear of a delay, we hope the new operators can open the park open as quickly as possible."

Hart says failure to reopen the park could end up costing taxpayers millions, adding his original plans would have resulted in the park being open this year.

"You had a homegrown, experienced developer that turned around two theme parks and willing to put $29 million of private money in. And the state couldn’t find a way to put any money in? The city couldn’t find a way to party up with us to get that attraction reopened? I really believe it’s unconscionable," he says

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