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Who owns Conneaut park? Dispute in court tomorrow

Wednesday, July 17, 2002

By Milan Simonich, Post-Gazette Staff Writer

The tug of war over ownership of 110-year-old Conneaut Lake Park heads to a courtroom tomorrow.

Former park operator Gary Harris, free after serving 27 months in prison, says he still holds a lease that gives his trusts control of the park's land and amusement rides.

Herbert Brill, a trustee who is running the park as a nonprofit community enterprise, counters that Harris cut all ties to Conneaut Lake in 1997 with an act of uncommon generosity.

"He gave the park away," Brill said. "To use his words, it was a gift to the community, lock, stock and barrel."

The job of sorting out the dispute belongs to Crawford County Common Pleas Judge Gordon Miller. He has set aside four days this month and, if necessary, another two in August for a nonjury trial.

During the mid-1990s, Harris spent more than $4 million to rescue Conneaut Lake Park from bankruptcy and reopen it.

"He is not so benevolent or so wealthy that he then just gave it away," said his lawyer, Craig Markham.

Harris maintains that, because of a 99-year lease he secured when he acquired the park, trusts he set up for his children are entitled to money generated by Conneaut Lake's amusements.

For a time, Harris was a respected businessman in northwestern Pennsylvania because he saved the park, home of the Blue Streak roller coaster and a magnet for summer tourists.

Restaurants and shops along the lake reported a 40 percent drop in business when bankruptcy closed the park for parts of the 1995 and 1996 seasons.

The lakefront economy picked up after Harris resurrected the park and its amenities, which include a hotel built in 1903.

But while Harris was making friends in Pennsylvania, he ran afoul of criminal investigators in Ohio.

A tax protester known for warring with the government, Harris was convicted of racketeering and evading $115,000 in taxes.

Before Harris went to federal prison in 1997, Brill said, he made a gift of the park.

By some accounts, Harris happily gave away such a large asset because he feared the government might seize it.

Markham, Harris' lawyer, said no such giveaway occurred. Rather, he said, when Harris was incarcerated, he could not fight for his rights to the park.

Markham said Harris has been maligned by the nonprofit operation that asserted itself at Conneaut Lake in his absence.

"On the one hand, they attack him as a convicted felon to hurt his reputation in the community. On the other, they say he was so magnanimous he gave the park away," Markham said. "They can't have it both ways."

Brill said he wants to organize a stock sale in the park to provide it with money needed for long-delayed improvements. But, he said, the park cannot move ahead with a public offering until the court dispute with Harris is settled.

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