A group dedicated to restoring Wichita’s long-defunct Joyland amusement park wants the community to help decide whether it should abandon its goal of buying and renovating the park or push forward in light of developments that have left the park without a ride that many call its heart.
Faced with only $10,281 in the bank, a rundown property that would likely take millions to renovate and – as of last week – no carousel, Hillside Avenue entrance sign nor other signature pieces of the park, organizers of the Joyland Restoration Project say it’s time to look to donors for input on what to do next.
The project, which operates under the umbrella of a nonprofit called Restore Hope, posted a message Thursday on its Facebook page, explaining its dilemma.
“Over the past few years, we’ve been working to save a Wichita landmark. At times, the process is slow, other times, we make big steps,” the post reads.
“With the recent turn in events, we are turning to you. If we do not have support, we do not have a cause.”
Since then, hundreds of commenters have left a mix of messages on the Joyland Restoration Project’s Facebook Page — some applauding the effort and cheering it on, others saying that folding is the most reasonable option.
“I honestly hope that we can hold a public meeting and people can come together and see that we are sincere in .... (making) this a real community project,” Joyland Restoration Project board president Kira Johnson said Saturday. “And not just a Facebook endeavor.”
‘Our hearts sank’
The recent events referenced in the Joyland Restoration Project’s Facebook post are the latest in a series of blows to the grassroots restoration effort.
Last week, news broke that Joyland owner Margaret Spear had donated the carousel to Botanica. Officials at the gardens have plans to house it onsite after restoration.
Later the same day, the Historic Preservation Alliance of Wichita and Sedgwick County announced that it would begin taking possession of six items it had purchased from Spear in 2010 for $22,000. The items included two signs – including the iconic Joyland sign that had sat for decades along South Hillside – a bumper car, a stagecoach, the Mother Goose shoe and the original roller-coaster ticket booth.
“Our hearts sank, because we didn’t expect it at all,” Johnson said of the carousel donation.
“We knew that many of the rides have been for sale – the rides have been for sale since before we started Joyland Restoration Project – and many of them have not sold.
“But she (Spear) has started selling off rides more and more,” Johnson said.
The organization, however, was aware of the historic preservation alliance’s ownership interest, Johnson said.
But, she said, “We were told those items were safe for us or for whoever could put them to good use in Joyland, if that was a possibility.”
Joyland opened at 2801 S. Hillside in 1949. Spear and her late husband, Stan Nelson, met at the park the following year. Eighteen years later, they became part-owners and then sole owners in the mid-1970s.
In an interview with The Eagle last week, Spear said Joyland “was our life.”
But times changed. The park closed for the last time in 2006 after a failed lease. Stan Nelson died in 2010.
The 40-acre property has since become a constant target of relentless arsonists, vandals and thieves.
Late Saturday afternoon, two vehicles towing trailers sat on the shoulder of the drive leading into Joyland. Both were loaded with old, sun-faded parts of carnival rides. A few days before, other pieces were taken off the property and stowed in buildings miles away.
Despite the setbacks, Johnson and Joyland Restoration Project vice president Glen Lang still hope that with enough support and “the right person to invest,” their venture can be a success.
Both said they had engaged in recent talks with a potential investor who seemed “very interested.” The pair declined to disclose the man’s name but said he has lived in Wichita.
In terms of money, the project’s board – Johnson and Lang are currently its only members – has $10,281.21. It’s a far cry from the $10 million the organization two years ago said it would need to buy the park for $1 million and get renovations underway.
Johnson rates some of the group’s fundraisers a success. Others, like an Easter event held at Century II, failed to bring in enough cash to cover expenses, she said.
But not owning the park and not asking for public input sooner are what Johnson calls the project’s “biggest obstacles” to date.
“Hopefully, it’s not too late” to change that, she said.
Before the announcements that Botanica and the historic preservation alliance were taking possession of their items last week, Johnson said she and Lang had been looking to renew fundraising. As of late last week, though, the effort has been suspended.
Historically, the project has been spearheaded by people in their early 20s with little to no experience running nonprofits or revitalization projects. Johnson, 27 and pursuing a master’s degree, has the longest board membership.
Lang, who works in hotel management, joined about two years ago.
“We can’t do it all,” Johnson said.
Even former board president Alex East, who started the push to restore Joyland when he took his vision to the Wichita City Council as a teen in May 2011, may return to the project, Johnson said.
Though she hadn’t before publicly disclosed the reason for his departure, Johnson said Saturday that “it was mutually agreed upon that it was time for him (East) to step away and focus on school” when he left the board in 2012.
“He was 17 and 18, and he needed to be 17 and 18 and not grow up too fast,” she said. Since then, East has “been around and has participated in some meetings.”
The Joyland Restoration project is considering holding a public meeting to seek input on the future of its mission.
As of Sunday, there had been no meeting date set.
If the project dissolves, Johnson said those who bought season or opening-day passes will be reimbursed. All other donations would be given to an organization with restoration goals similar to that of the Joyland project, she said.
Botanica and the historic preservation alliance will both be under consideration to receive dollars raised if the project disbands, Johnson said.
Those who want to share their opinions about the fate of the group can leave comments on the Joyland Restoration Project’s Facebook page.
“When we started this, the public wanted us to continue to grow,” Johnson said. “The public wanted us to be 501(c)(3), so that’s why we went with it. So let’s see what the public wants” for the future.
She added: “Without support, there is no project.”