Future of Arnolds Park rests in its past

Thursday, December 29, 2005

ou can hear the cries from the carnival rides,

The pinball bills, ski ball slides,

Watching the summer sun fall out of sight,

There's a warm wind blowing in off of the ocean

Making its way past the hotel wall to fill the streets

Mary is holding both of her shoes in her hands

Said she likes to feel the sand beneath her feet."

Any time I hear that Kenny Chesney spring break anthem playing, when it comes to the line about feeling "the sting of summer on my skin," the image in my mind isn't Panama Beach or South Padre, but the Arnold's Park waterfront with it's orange sunset, blue water, sandy beach and clattering roller coaster, as seen from the roof of the old Tippee House. These days, in the midst of a Sustain the Park drive there, the image comes with a fond hope that the park will find a future - preferably rooted within its own past.

Let me explain.

For most of us who grew up in these parts, the little amusement park at Arnolds Park holds a special place in our hearts and memories. It is part of us.

It has been a place where our parents took us, where we may have fallen into or left behind a summer romance, where we heard a concert we will never forget, where we've taken our children or grandchildren and relived a little of our own childhood over a Nutty Bar and merry-go-round spin in the full-circle process.

Those of us who have loved the place suffered through the years when it was lifeless. A little fragment of ourselves was boarded up the same. And we felt an unexpectedly powerful hope when the original Save the Park project was bringing it back to life with shining promises.

And while it has been open and viable for some years now, it has never really been safely out of trouble, it has never quite been self-sustaining, and it has never quite been what it once was.

Whether the park has changed, or whether we as a society has, could be argued at length.

I challenge you to do this without feeling a little of that same childhood thrill: Stand out on the far end of one of those steamer docks on a quiet summer's night, feeling the energy of the waves all around while before you spreads the panoramic scene of colored lights, the slightly blurred spinning of a huge ferris wheel, the rush of the car along a timeless loop of wooden roller coaster tracks, the smell of cotton candy coming across the beach along with the happy yells of the children.

So this is not just a tourist attraction, not just a business. This is a one-of-a-kind place, one that needs to be sustained.

For one thing, it is the 10th oldest amusement park in the nation, and arguably the oldest single park west of the Mississippi, dating back to an 1886 waterslide. Like Coney Island and a very few timeless boardwalk parks on the coasts, the beachfront appeal makes it special, something a larger urban park like Adventureland or those cookie-cutter Six Flags places can never be.

As the onset of TV and theme parks doomed most of the small amusement parks, with over 2,000 disappearing, Arnolds Park Amusement Park has somehow survived.

It dodged a bullet when wealthy Chuck Long bought the carcass in 1989, and a decade later when a plan to turn the place into lakefront condos was foiled by a new Maritime Museum effort. Timely donations raised some $7.6 million to Save the Park, some state grants came along, local governments have helped, and a recent donation of half a million bucks helped to boost the Sustain the Park drive.

Yet even sentiment can't keep gates open without money. The park can't count on a big fund drive handout every couple of years; it needs to build an endowment to ensure that operations and maintenance will go on smoothly even in the event of a stormy summer. It needs to draw people and sell stuff.

For the past two years, I'm told the park's operations are doing a little better than breaking even, which is good news, but that doesn't pay off debt or raise funds for substantial improvements that are needed. Thus, the Sustain the Park fund drive.

Just a drive may not be enough. I don't intend to be critical. Consider the following as constructive hmmmmm-inizing from the admittedly wandering mind of someone who loves the place.

This is where the park's past comes in. It has strayed a bit from that classic identity, I fear, and not necessarily always for the better.

Some of the rides have become the typical spinning apples and scramblers of the low-grade parking lot carnivals that come to every town, and a plastic playground is just like every modern city park in Iowa offers. I recall being told when the Save the Park effort first started that some classic attractions were in storage and ready to restore - if that is true, they should find a place back in the park. In time, maybe the Fun House could be re-created as a major attraction.

Park management discovered, when they briefly tried to replace a classic House of Mirrors with a cheap t-shirt stand, that people are desperate to retain the original things, where so many memories are stored.

Luckily, the park has some of those - the irreplaceable Legend roller coaster, the quirky Tippee House, the funky Bug House, the little train, the old-time bumper cars that my kids will stand in line forever for.

I would like to see it put out the call nationwide and beyond for other repairable classic rides, midway games and attractions that may still exist elsewhere in shut-down parks, been taken out of service in more modern-oriented parks, or are sitting in dusty collections. They certainly aren't any good unless kids are screeching around them, and donors might receive a hefty deduction.