Local News

Louisville developer Ed Hart says he’d be open to resuming talks with the state fair board to get the Kentucky Kingdom amusement park back up and running, but such negotiations don’t appear likely.

A week ago, the Koch family pulled out of its agreement to reopen the park as Bluegrass Boardwalk.   The owners of Indiana’s Holiday World cited potential problems that could arise from leasing the property from the state.

The fair board had reached a deal with the Kochs after ending months of negotiations with Hart, who previously operated the park.   Hart says he’s willing to listen if the fair board wants to resume talks.  

“Nobody’s called us to (say) 'let’s pick up the negotiations where we left off.'   If somebody called, of course, we’d answer that phone call and we might very well sit down but that’s hasn’t happened, it’s been a week and frankly, I don’t think it will happen,” Hart said today on WFPL's Byline program.

Fair board president Harold Workman said this week that he’s heard from some national theme park operators interested in the park, but declined to identify them.

Hart  says there are a number of companies with the means to make the park successful again.

“(If)we get Disney in here or Universal or Busch Gardens people, or there’s a whole string of top-tier operators, the Herschend Co.,they operate Silver Dollar City and Dollywood.  If any of those companies are interested, or Harold’s talking to (them), I think that’s super exciting,” he said. 

Kentucky Kingdom has been closed for more than two years.  Its most recent operator, Six Flags, filed for bankruptcy protection. 



On the Koch Family's Motives

The only winner in this Holiday World debacle has been Holiday World. Every year the park, Kentucky Kingdom, doesn't reopen, that's tantamount to hundreds of thousands of persons going to Holiday World that would otherwise go to Kentucky Kingdom. Considering that that's all plus business for Holiday World—and by their own press statements, they said after the initial season when Kentucky Kingdom was closed, that they picked up a couple of hundred thousand visitors because the of the closing of Kentucky Kingdom—then the only person that's going to gain by the continued closing of Kentucky Kingdom is Holiday World, to the tune of millions and millions of dollars, that would otherwise be spent in Kentucky. 

The last thing I want to do is, I don't want to get into an argument with Natalie Koch. They run a very, very nice facility up there. They're business people. But it does beg the question that you left Harold Workman and the Fair Board at the Altar. After all, you had the wedding dress—that's the lease. You had the ring—that's the tax credits they got. To say, at the end of that nine-month process, that we really don't want to rent, we want to own, as though you didn't realize that you were renting from the beginning, and also, if you say it's difficult to deal with the government, that's called the lease. You work those difficulties out in the lease. That's what a lease is for. We had no problem working with the government when I operated Kentucky Kingdom in the '90s, as long as the lease terms provided efficient and smooth operations. Do frankly, if they're the only winners in the process, then yes, I'm a bit suspicious of some of their excuses. 

But this is not about the Koch family, in my mind. My grudge all  along was, I wanted to see the park that we originally built as the number-one tourist attraction in Kentucky, I wanted to see that park remain intact as a regional theme park. That's where you get the tremendous economic benefits. That's where you get ten million dollars of plus new revenue for the state, per the state's own study. And that's where we put a thousand young people to work, and we put fifty to a hundred well-paying, full-time jobs to work. My goal was to keep it as a regional theme park. 

On His Own 18-Month Attempt to Reopen the Park

I don't understand why they stopped our conversations. First of all, not only do we have proven turnaround experience, but we had 29 million dollars ready to go. Plus, we had a strategic partner in the Al J. Schneider Company—let's face it, one of the best hospitality companies in our community. And finally, we were home-grown operators. I mean, you don't want to have absentee owners like the Six Flags Kentucky Kingdom People. If we're involved, as we hoped to be then, you can't walk down the street without somebody stopping you and saying what their problems might be, what they liked, what they didn't like. That home-grown component is really, really important, 'cause you have the heartbeat of our community.

So I think we had all he pieces. And the 29 million was double what the Holiday World folk were going to put in. We had what we thought was a very,  very fair and equitable lease, and then, all of the sudden, it stopped. We made several proposals after that, and the Fair Board never responded to those proposals. We just received a letter saying that they were no longer interested. So it's a puzzle to me what happened. 

On Whether He's Still Interested in Reopening the Park

Nobody's called us. It's been a week. Nobody's called us to pick up the negotiations where we left off. If somebody called, of course, we'd answer that phone call, and we might very well sit down, but that hasn't happened. And frankly, I don't think it will happen.

On Whether There's a Strong Enough Market for an Amusement Park

When I first embarked upon this 20 years ago—I guess it's a little bit more than 20 years—in 1990, media reports at that time was that I had to be crazy to try to build a theme park in the shadow of Kings Island. We went from 137,000 visitors in our first year, in 1990, to over 1.3 million people by the time we got to selling it to Six Flags. Of course there's a market. 

Kentucky Kingdom will do, if it has the right assortment f attractions—remember, big rides equals attendance and attractions—as long as it has the fire power of constant reinvestment in new rides and attractions, there's no question. It's a million-plus facility.

And again, what puzzles me is that the state understands, at a time of budget crisis, that adds ten million dollars plus in tax revenue that they're losing when Kentuckians leave the state to visit theme parks. Their own report indicated there were a couple hundred thousand overnight stays because of Kentucky Kingdom. I mean, add it up. Why would you not want to get this thing open sooner than later? Had they made the deal with us, we would be open now. Now. Every year it's delayed, it costs the state up to ten million dollars a year. So it's baffling, from an economic point of view, and from a jobs point of view, why out political leaders haven't made this a top priority. 

Rick Howlett is host of WFPL's weekly talk show, "In Conversation."