Sally Bell’s crusade: Part One

Wednesday, 02 July 2008
Sally Bell filed as a Republican for the office of Tulsa County Commissioner District 2 and faces incumbent Commissioner Randi Miller in a July 29 primary election.  Bell has never before sought public office, but from a formal interview it is clear that this race is not just about serving the people of Tulsa County.  This race is revenge upon the body public – a family feud in which constituent interests may well become collateral damage.

Sally Bell’s family operated Bell’s Amusement Park from the 1950s until 2007.  She is married to Bob Bell and her son, Robert Bell III was the general manager at the time of closing.  While many Tulsans have fond memories of the park and the childhood joys it represented, in the last decade and especially in the last five years of operation, the park had fallen into disrepair.  A child was killed by one ride.  Gang violence was not uncommon.  The park was ancient and times had changed.

Elected public officials and Expo Square management have avoided a tit-for-tat public relations battle by not answering public statements from the Bell family and say privately they unanimously wish a successful rebirth of Bell’s Park in a new location.

Sally Bell apparently has difficulty looking forward.  The first question this reporter asked was, “Why are you running?”  Bell answered, “A lot of reasons” – and then spent her next 500 words bemoaning Bell’s departure.

In part, Bell said, “Now, we’ve been there 56 years.  We’ve paid 12 ½ million dollars in rent since 1960, employed over 10,000 kids over the years, been good corporate citizens.  We’ve done all the right things.  Our rent was always paid and yet without any forewarning at all – in fact, with a promise of a new contract – we were evicted.  They gave us 120 days to get out, which was impossible.  Finally, it was extended, I think ‘til June 24.  And we left about five million dollars in the ground because we didn’t have the resources or the time to get out.  So that was the beginning.  We began to think, ‘Wait a minute, this is a fifth-generation Tulsa family and why would they do that?’ ”

Local Attorney Clark Brewster served on the Tulsa County Public Facilities Authority in 2006 and 2007 during the time Bell’s was required to leave.

Brewster said, “It was not a 120-day notice; it was at least a two or three year realization that the Bell family was not making any kind of effort to maintain the premises and the property was deteriorating to the point of embarrassment and potential safety risk.

“I don’t think the Bell family understood the economics.  Their rent had been reduced [by 10 percent] to 15 percent.  The amount they were being charged was less than the original amount of the lease in 1950.  I don’t know of any business that would have enjoyed the benefit of such a low rent.  Not withstanding that, the problem was that they were just not reinvesting in the infrastructure and maintaining the premises,” Brewster said.

“When I came on the Authority, they were in arrears with a back debt they said they could not pay.  They kept asking for more and more time.  So not only had the rent not been increased, it had been decreased over time and they had been accommodated with arrearages.  It was very clear that they were completely failing to maintain the premises or invest in the infrastructure,” Brewster added.

Brewster had previously represented in a lawsuit the family of a child killed by a failure of a ride at Bell’s on April 20, 1997.

“Prior to joining the Board, I represented Patrick Kurek in 1997, a young man killed on the Wildcat rollercoaster at Bell’s.  The part that failed on that ride was one of many manufactured by Bell’s park employees in one of the back buildings at the park.  It was a polyurethane part to prevent the rollercoaster from rolling backwards.  The Department of Labor investigation revealed the defective part was homemade mis-sized and inadequate.  As the Wildcat rollercoaster car went forward, the part failed and then the car rolled back and slammed into another car and threw the children out of the car, killing Patrick Kurek and injuring three others,” Brewster said.

As a result of that accident, state legislators made changes to the Amusement Ride Safety Act of Oklahoma.  The Tulsa World quoted Department of Labor spokesman Trey Davis saying in 1998, “It was the first fatality on a ride (in Oklahoma) and the first accident where we’ve had to do an investigation, and it was really the first test of that law.”

Changes suggested by the Labor Department included raising the amount of liability insurance an amusement park must carry and broadening the scope of what rides the department can inspect.  The Labor Department also changed administrative rules to require park owners to provide a minimum amount of training for amusement ride operators and to keep detailed maintenance records.  State officials said their investigation of the accident was hampered by the lack of records kept at Bell’s.

Shortly before the park’s closing, Brewster said, “Executive Director Rick Bjorklund had representatives from Six Flags come out with their ride inspectors and walk through Bell’s.  They were just aghast at the state of disrepair of the rides.  As I remember it, they noted that it was the only major rollercoaster in American without automatic brakes – Zingo only had hand-brakes.

“Had the Bells come to the Board and said they would reinvest in the park and maintain the park, then certainly, that would have been a win-win situation.  It would be nice to have a downtown Tulsa amusement park that was vibrant, well-maintained and well-run, but that option was not available,” Brewster said.

Edit Note:
Tomorrow “Sally Bell’s crusade: Part Two” features issues beyond Bell’s Amusement Park.

Last Updated ( Wednesday, 02 July 2008 )