$100,000 fire latest low in Joyland’s downhill ride

A fire that destroyed a two-story building last week at the closed Joyland Amusement Park caused about $100,000 in damage, a Wichita fire official said Tuesday.

Friday’s blaze, which remains under investigation, is probably the fourth or fifth fire that the Fire Department has responded to at the shuttered park at 2801 S. Hillside in the past several years, said fire Capt. Stuart Bevis. About 21 fire units responded to the blaze at one time or another Friday night, Bevis said.

It is the latest setback for the historic but deteriorating park, which closed in 2006 and now presents a dilemma, as Wichita City Council Member James Clendenin sees it.

“There is a lot of emotion that surrounds that piece of property ... so it is delicate” to talk about its future, said Clendenin, whose District 3 includes the vacant amusement park and the older neighborhood surrounding it.

“Most people who have grown up in Wichita have been to Joyland and enjoyed it,” he said. Clendenin, now 38, said he started going to Joyland when he was in elementary school.

But as the elected representative for District 3, which includes parts of south and east Wichita, he also has heard complaints from neighborhood association members living near the park. They are concerned about varmints being drawn to the vacant property and about the look of their neighborhood, he said.

Clendenin said he knows of no city plan to intervene in Joyland but remains hopeful that it can reopen. He mentioned a nonprofit effort to accomplish that.

If the city were to try to condemn the property and clear it, the cost could be prohibitive, he said. He said a rough estimate would be several hundred thousand dollars.

Clendenin said he also realizes that for the owner, doing anything with the property can be expensive, too.

“It’s very hard to secure a place like that,” he said.

Despite fencing, locked gates and monitoring, vandals and arsonists keep getting in. Someone has spray-painted “I Kill” in big black letters on one building.

Maybe no one understands the hard choices better than Margaret Spear. Her late husband, Stan Nelson, had been involved with the park since 1951, and they became owners in the 1970s. She said the park opened in June 1949 and that its rollercoaster was special.

“It was not a huge rollercoaster,” Spear said, “but it was a very exciting coaster.”

But these days, there is no joyful noise in Joyland, only birds singing in perches here and there, only breezes whispering through weeds.

The coaster sits silent, showing its age and lack of use in peeling paint and displaced parts. Elsewhere, the remaining park buildings and structures look shabby, their bright paint only a memory.

Spear watched Friday night as firefighters rolled hose out to fight the fire. It bothered her that they had to respond, she said.

She is 79 now, and the fate of the park has weighed on her.

“Well, basically, I have turned the thing over to God,” she said. “Right at this point, I don’t know what to do. … It’s just a situation where I’m waiting for an answer.”

The park remains for sale, Spear said. She declined to disclose the price.

As for Friday’s fire, it’s logical to assume a human hand was involved in starting the blaze. But without being able to interview someone who was there at the time, it’s difficult to know how the fire began and what the intent was, said Bevis, the acting fire marshal. Whoever was there was trespassing.

Friday’s fire gutted a two-story wooden building that covered about 5,000 square feet, Bevis said. The building at one time housed offices and games involving BB-type guns and skee-ball, he said.

When fire crews arrived, the second floor was engulfed, and eventually collapsed. Firefighters searched the first floor to make sure it was clear, and then focused on keeping the blaze from spreading, Bevis said.

In August, a fire allegedly set in a maintenance building caused $15,000 in damage; another arson fire destroyed a building in 2011.

Anyone with information about the latest fire can call the Wichita fire investigation unit, 316-337-9146, or Crime Stoppers, 316-267-2111, Bevis said.

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