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Conneaut Lake Park may have to close over ownership lawsuit

Sunday, February 16, 2003

By Milan Simonich, Post-Gazette Staff Writer

After 111 years, two fires and three bankruptcies, Conneaut Lake Park may be out of comebacks.

The old-fashioned amusement park 90 miles north of Pittsburgh is broke and will not make its scheduled opening on Memorial Day weekend unless it obtains a $350,000 loan.

Worse still, no bank will lend the park any money because of an ongoing lawsuit over ownership of its land and amusement rides, said Herbert Brill, Conneaut Lake's court-appointed manager.

"Getting a loan with the court case unresolved is not hard to do. It's impossible," Brill said.

Testimony in the lawsuit began in July and may not be finished. At issue is whether former park operator Gary Harris, who had a 99-year lease at the park, still controls Conneaut Lake's moneymaking attractions.

Brill says Harris gave the park to the people of northwestern Pennsylvania before Harris went to prison in 1997 for tax evasion. Free after serving a 27-month sentence, Harris says he made no such donation.

The case for control of the park is in the hands of Crawford County Common Pleas Judge Gordon Miller. He has said he may render a decision, but he also may hear a new round of arguments.

Harris has filed two other lawsuits against Brill and others affiliated with the park, which now describes itself as a nonprofit community enterprise.

Harris, 63, a four-time felon, says his enemies at the park tried to discredit him with a civil racketeering lawsuit that was dropped on the eve of a trial. Now he is suing them back for abuse of process, contending that Brill brought a frivolous case to break his finances and his spirit.

The courtroom battles may not intrigue anybody except Harris, Brill and their attorneys, but they could close the park, a Crawford County tourist draw since 1892.

Brill has laid off all 20 of the park's full-time employees. Volunteers answer the phone, so Conneaut Lake Park will not appear to be dead should somebody inquire about the summer season.

With court permission, Brill just sold two rundown houses and a highway billboard that were owned by the park. He estimated the proceeds at $60,000, enough to pay the park's utility bills and incidental expenses for winter and spring, but nowhere close to the amount needed to reopen for business.

It means the park's Blue Streak roller coaster, midway and other amusements will remain idle without the bank loan.

"I don't want to put any odds on our chances. I'll just say I'm doing everything I can to get the $350,000 we need to open," Brill said.

Harris' attorney, Craig Markham, suggested that Brill might be painting a bleak picture in hopes of tipping the court case his way. "I don't know that it's not just a gambit to put pressure on the judge," he said.

Conneaut Lake Park went bankrupt in the 1930s and twice more during the 1990s. It was closed in 1995 and part of 1996, which turned into hard times for small businesses that depend on the park to generate tourist traffic.

"The park is critically important to our economy," said Judy Hughes, owner of two Mama Bear's restaurants on Conneaut Lake.

She said her business plunged 45 percent during the two summers that the park was closed. Boaters, swimmers and tourists still visited Conneaut Lake, but their numbers dwindled to the point that Hughes did not bother opening her restaurants Mondays through Wednesdays.

"We're shaking our heads and waiting to see what's going to happen this time," she said. "There are so many twists and turns that it puts an Agatha Christie plot to shame."

It was Harris who reopened the park after its third bankruptcy in 1996. Summertime crowds approaching 300,000 returned during 12-week seasons, from Memorial Day to Labor Day.

But Harris also failed to pay his taxes, both at the park and in Willowick, Ohio, where he lived. His stance led to a criminal prosecution for the Ohio case and his being incarcerated for tax evasion, his third stay in prison. He previously served three years in reform school for statutory rape and 18 months in federal prison for trafficking in stolen money orders.

As for Conneaut Lake Park, it owes $280,000 in back taxes. Brill attributes the bill to Harris' refusal to comply with tax laws.

The park also has about $750,000 in other debts.

Brill had hoped to take the park public by offering stock in it to Pennsylvania residents, but the idea faded because of the ownership dispute.

His new plan is to put the park under the control of a community board of directors, whose mission would be to find a developer capable of turning Conneaut Lake Park into a year-round resort.

The park sits along Pennsylvania's largest natural lake, and it is home to a 150-room hotel. Brill believes that those are the foundation of a tourist economy.

He says the hotel looks like something F. Scott Fitzgerald wrote about in "The Great Gatsby." To him, the whole park has the charm of a diversion from the 1930s.

It also has the limitations of a Depression-era business. The hotel lacks air-conditioning and heat. Fifty rooms were in such disrepair that Brill closed them last summer.

Even so, he says, Crawford County is sitting on a tourism gold mine if it makes the right moves.

"We've got 155 acres on a private beachfront. Any developer could make a small fortune just putting up condominiums," Brill said. "The better plan is to keep it for public use."

He estimates that $7 million to $9 million would have to be invested to create a resort capable of hosting small auto or trade shows. Brill said he had been in discussions with two developers.

Harris wants the amusement park, too, though he doubts that he could be its operator again.

"He would like to, but he doesn't think he could from a public relations standpoint because he's been so vilified in the press," lawyer Markham said.

Milan Simonich can be reached at msimonich@post-gazette.com or 412-263-1956.

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