Update: Wagoner County commissioners on Tuesday, June 1 voted to rescind a July 27 special election to vote on a sales tax increase to relocate Bell’s Amusement Park to the county.
Wagoner County Commissioners on May 24 approved a resolution to relocate the former Bells Amusement Park, pending voter approval of a sales-tax increase in July and they signed a 50-year lease with Robert K. Bell Enterprises, Inc. Tulsa County residents fondly remember Bells which opened at the Tulsa County fairgrounds 1951, but those childhood memories do not often reflect the condition of the park at closing.
Since 2006, parts of rides and other equipment have been stored off 11th Street and Frankford in downtown Tulsa. Recent photos of that storage are included with this story. How much value remains in this equipment is open to question with one former patron saying, “I am not letting my family on any ride they would construct from that rust pile.”
"I’m in a daze," said Robby Bell, the grandson of the founder of the park, told The Tulsa World about the new location. "Hopefully, the citizens of Wagoner County will vote yes. If they do, we’re going to build an amusement park out there." The park reportedly would be built in Coweta. In November 2006, the Tulsa County Public Facilities Authority, which operates the fairgrounds, chose not to renew the amusement park’s lease.
Vice President and Chief Financial Officer, Sally Bell is currently Chairman of the Tulsa County Republican Party. This position she won in a party election after losing a public campaign for County Commissioner. Bell and her husband are both long active in stridently conservative groups and causes. Thus the irony of an anti-tax, small-government, reform demanding activist family securing public tax dollars for a private enterprise. Come to think about it, a multi-generational family enterprise that has always subsisted by an exclusive insider deal with government.
Money from a quarter-cent sales-tax increase that Wagoner County voters will consider July 27 would be used to buy property to relocate the park and its famous Zingo roller coaster, Bell told the Tulsa World. The tax increase will also include an exposition center project and a Wagoner County animal shelter.
Even if this ballot issue passes, some question if the Bells can fund or finance a park.
While many Tulsans have fond memories of 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.
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. During a July 2008 story on Tulsa Today titled, “Sally Bell’s Crusade Part One” Brewster rebuffed several claims of abuse the Bell family believes they suffered at the hands of public officials.
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 miss-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.
While many hope the Bell family will be successful with some kind of park somewhere, they have appealed to every municipality in the area. Maybe they have found a new home in Coweta. Maybe Wagoner County officials think the inclusion of an amusement park in the tax package will help secure passage for the exposition center and animal shelter.
However, as Sally Bell knows well, most tax increases draw organized opposition. In this case, Wagoner Resident David Tackett representing Citizens Against Corporate Welfare told the Tulsa World, "There are plenty of organizations and companies out there that would love to have the county buy their land. Are we going to raise sales tax each time another company comes in?"
The quarter-cent sales-tax increase would last for 10 years, generating about an extra $1 million a year. Oklahoma Tax Commission data show that the increase would raise the sales tax rate to 9.05 percent for Wagoner, Coweta and the Wagoner County part of Broken Arrow.
Tackett was quoted saying "We’re in a deep recession right now. The last thing we need is some corporate giveaways, which is what this pretty much is."
This story will be discussed further today between 4 and 6 pm on The David Arnett Show on AM 740 and FM 102.3 news talk KRMG radio. Readers are welcome to join the show by calling 460-KRMG to share their views or register free on Tulsa Today to comment below.