Wichita teen’s Joyland restoration project inches forward

07/01/2012 5:00 AM

08/05/2014 10:12 PM

A Wichita teen’s multimillion-dollar campaign to renovate Joyland, the city’s defunct amusement park, has taken a tiny step forward.

But Alex East – who drew public attention in May 2011 after he asked the Wichita City Council to fund his $10 million push to buy and restore the park at 2801 S. Hillside – still faces an enormous project plagued by major problems.

Six years after it closed, Joyland is littered with debris, defaced by vandals, and decaying with weather and time.

And East’s Joyland Restoration Project has about $6,000 – a fraction of the $10 million he estimates will be needed to buy and renovate the park. None of which discourages East.

“Honestly, yes, the account is low right now, but only because we are strictly running off of public” donations, said East, 18. “You know, people just donating their $10 or $20 or buying T-shirts.”

Last month, East took a step toward potentially earning more support when his organization, Restore Hope Inc., was granted nonprofit status. The change will allow the group to apply for grants and accept tax-deductible contributions.

Experts in the amusement industry say it’s a small victory for East.

“I wish them well,” said Gary Slade, publisher and editor-in-chief of Amusement Today, “but they have a long, uphill battle ahead of them.”

‘It’s absolutely horrible’

Joyland owner Margaret Spear and her late husband, Stan Nelson, bought the 40-acre, southeast Wichita park in the 1970s. The couple – who met in 1950 when both worked at the park – ran it for decades, but shut it down in 2004 as rides aged and attendance dwindled.

Joyland opened again a couple of seasons later, but trouble with the people operating the park forced the Nelsons to permanently close after the 2006 season. Later, the park became a target for vandals.

“We were sad to see it go,” said Spear, 78. “My husband (Stan) and I were just sick about it. But we were at the age when we just couldn’t do anything.”

The couple put the park up for sale, asking $2 million. Later, the price dropped to $1 million, after the Nelsons sold some land and rides.

Today, the landscape at Joyland is bleak.

Evidence of intruders — trash, discarded clothing, beer cans — litters the midway. Glass shards are scattered on walkways. Buildings, defaced by vandals, are damaged or knocked down. An arson fire destroyed a building in 2011.

Wood is rotting. Roofs sag. Weeds and trees are overgrown.

“It’s horrible, it’s absolutely horrible,” District 3 council member James Clendenin said of the park’s current state. “And that’s putting it lightly.”

A lifelong love

East’s interest in restoring Joyland began a few years ago, when he devised a plan to buy the land, fix the rides and restore the ambience of “classic” Joyland.

He said he visited the park with family and first rode the wooden roller coaster – one of the last surviving coasters designed by Herbert Paul Schmeck – at age 2.

“Every since then I’ve been in love with amusement parks,” he said. “We always plan our family vacations around them.”

At 17, he announced his intentions to City Council members and requested $10 million to help him buy and renovate the park. Eventually he partnered with Kira Johnson, the 25-year-old vice president of Restore Hope, who helps manage and market the project.

East, who graduated from Northwest High School in May, is currently working with volunteers to determine the cost of repairing the rides. If successful, he plans to operate Joyland as a nonprofit amusement park.

An ambitious project

Experts say a renovation won’t be cheap.

Estimates by developers and others in the amusement industry range from $5 million to $20 million. Most say they haven’t stepped foot on Joyland since well before it closed, but agree time is a factor when figuring revitalization costs.

Lack of funding sources may also pose problems, sources say.

“Joyland is sitting closed in Wichita. The Hard Rock Park is sitting closed in Myrtle Beach. The old Six Flags New Orleans site is sitting deteriorating,” said Slade, of Amusement Today. He pointed to dwindling grant money and tight reins on loans as problems Restore Hope may encounter.

“They’re all sitting idle because nobody has money,” he said.

Despite hurdles, experts say a renovation can happen, especially when the community feels nostalgic.

“It will be an ambitious project, there’s no question about that,” said Dennis Speigel, president of International Theme Park Services, a Cincinnati consulting company.

“But our industry as a whole has a tremendous upside as it relates to bringing back facilities like this.”

Growing support

East admits the project is lofty, but says community support is building.

East’s request for $10 million in public funds was met with enthusiasm – but no money – by City Council members. The city’s future role in the project, if any, remains unknown, according to director of Urban Development Allen Bell

He said East’s plan is “nowhere near being ready for the city to look at yet. I have no idea if there’s a role the city will play in this. It’s too early to tell.”

Clendenin, whose district includes the park, said he continues to support Joyland’s return to “a thriving amusement park.”

“I hope that we can get something done on this. I really do,” Clendenin said. “It’s been closed too long. And this is a place the whole city could enjoy.”

In neighboring Planeview, East’s project is “all the buzz” among older residents, who recall the park’s heyday.

“The neighborhood thought is it (restoration) can happen, but it will take a major effort,” said the Rev. Al Rose, longtime Planeview resident and secretary of Planeview’s neighborhood association.

“In its unoccupied status, (Joyland) is a liability to the quality of life in Wichita. In a developed status, it could be a tremendous asset to the community.”

Joyland Restoration Project also continues to see broader public backing, East and Johnson said. Some support the project on Facebook, joining more than 12,000 fans. Some donors send cash, others buy T-shirts bearing messages like “Bring Back the Shack” – a reference to the park’s Whacky Shack ride – or they pay for advance season passes.

“A dollar here, a dollar there,” Johnson said. “We believe in our hearts that once we purchase the park, everyone will be on board.”

By the end of the year, East hopes to have $1 million to buy the land and remaining rides.

For now Joyland sits empty, a ghost of the park it once was.

“When I walk in the park, I may see what you see for the first five or 10 seconds, but then it all turns back into what it was before,” East said. “The fun memories of everyone screaming down the first hill of the roller coaster … and Louie the Clown playing the organ. I mean I see that. I see all of it.

“But under no circumstance is it only memories to me, because I know that the park does have the chance of reopening.”

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