Can This Amusement Park Be Saved?

CLEMENTON, N.J. — Their coats buttoned against the chill of a gray Friday in March, people were climbing the stairs of the water slides and the roller coaster with clipboards and measuring tapes. They ducked under the carousel’s turnstile to peer around its striped canvas cover, wind tattered and hanging to the ground in places, and walked the edge of a murky wave pool.

It was three days before the auction of Clementon Park and Splash World, and a few dozen prospective bidders carried stapled packets listing 410 lots, from the Scrambler to the trash cans.

Marianna Wilson, 60, had flown in from Cleburne, Texas. She walked along the railroad line, counting sections of track to estimate its total length. She and her husband, Jim Wilson, hoped it might fit on their farm park 25 miles south of Fort Worth. Mr. Wilson, 64, had his eye on the giant Ferris wheel.

For most of its 114 years, the park was the largest taxpayer — and the principal attraction — of Clementon, a hamlet 20 minutes from Philadelphia. In September 2019, a week before the last scheduled day of the season, and rather presciently, considering the year to come, it closed without warning. Throughout the pandemic it has sat in an eerie limbo; in hurriedly abandoned offices and maintenance buildings, dust gathering on jackets slung over chair backs and to-do lists pinned to corkboards.

Early this year, the park’s corporate owners defaulted on a multi-million-dollar mortgage, and the auction was announced. Clementon Park, like so many small-town amusement parks before it, appeared doomed. Carnival proprietors, summer camp operators, ice cream shop owners and eccentric collectors came to the pre-auction inspection, looking to pick what they could from its bones.

I was there too. I hadn’t been inside for close to 15 years, but I grew up in Clementon, on a hill above the park. My bedroom windows faced the Ferris wheel; on summer nights its lights played across my ceiling. Its Jack Rabbit roller coaster was the first I ever rode. It took all season to work up the nerve, but eventually I climbed in next to my father, who swears the only seat on a coaster is the very front.

In middle school, wielding season passes, my friends and I spent nearly every day in the park, floating around the lazy river until the sun dipped low, scarfing funnel cakes and playing endless rounds of Skee-Ball. We didn’t have cellphones then. Instead, I toted a walkie-talkie, its pair at home with my mom. Every three hours I’d take a mandatory spin on the Ferris wheel — the signal only carried from the very top — to check in.

In hindsight, I realize, it was a parent’s dream. We were entertained, sufficiently supervised, and safe behind the park gates. But it felt like freedom. We were the luckiest kids in America, in a place that made us feel like we’d be young forever. Somehow, in the intervening years, it was the park that grew old. Now it was facing extinction.

‘Another Way of Life’

In the early years of the 20th century, business at Theodore B. Gibbs’s grist mill was suffering. Modern roller mills had rendered his operation on Clementon Lake obsolete, and Mr. Gibbs, a Civil War veteran who had served as Clementon’s postmaster and the county sheriff, was looking for a new business venture.

Ringed by fine sand and shady pines, Clementon Lake appealed to visitors from nearby farming communities and the rapidly growing city of Camden. Mr. Gibbs advertised a fleet of rowboats for rent and added a picnic building and a dance hall.

In 1907, the public trolley line from Camden’s Federal Street Ferry House was extended to the gates of Clementon Park, and visitors from Camden and Philadelphia flooded in.

“It was really the transportation industry that started the American amusement park,” said Jim Futrell, the director and historian of the National Amusement Park Historical Association. Electric streetcar systems were invented in 1888. “Overnight, hundreds of trolley companies sprang up around the country, and they all decided to build resorts at the end of the line to generate traffic on evenings and weekends.”

Mr. Futrell estimates there were more than 1,000 trolley parks in the United States in the decade before the first world war, many of them in small suburban towns. In those boom years, Clementon Park added one of the region’s first nickelodeon movie theaters and a new bathhouse. Vacation homes and restaurants sprung up throughout town.

The war was tough on the amusement industry, but as trolley parks closed elsewhere, this one grew. In 1919, the Gibbs family installed a Ferris wheel and a steam-driven carousel. That same year, they spent $80,000 — more than $1 million today — for the Jack Rabbit coaster, designed by the renowned ride engineer John A. Miller and built of wood by the Philadelphia Toboggan Company.

The Depression and the automobile’s increasing popularity brought another wave of park closures. “You could survive if you had room to install a parking lot,” Mr. Futrell said, “and Clementon did.”

More modern thrill rides were added. In the dance hall, Red Skelton and Dick Clark hosted dance-till-you-drop marathons. There were daily high-dive shows and circus acts on the lake. Just outside the park gates, a downtown shopping district bustled through the midcentury, and by 1960, Clementon’s population had grown to nearly 4,000 residents in just two square miles.

But the boom that followed World War II threatened the small-town way of life.

“They built huge malls and shopping centers just down the road,” Danielle Burrows said, “and there was a hard shift away from downtown districts in the 1960s.” Ms. Burrows, 41, grew up in town and wrote about Clementon for the “Images of America” book series in 2009. By the time the main street’s shops and apartments were demolished in the name of “urban renewal” in the 1970s, Ms. Burrows said, “the town’s heyday was at least a decade in the rearview.”

There are few stores and restaurants left now, and almost nothing is manufactured in Clementon today. When the amusement park didn’t open at all during the 2020 season, Marian Mumie, 82, who moved to Clementon in 1938, recalled that earlier demolition.

“We’re potentially on track for urban renewal Part 2,” she said. “It’s another way of life that’s going for us.”

End of the Ride

Like little Alvy in “Annie Hall,” many children of Clementon, including me, were indelibly imprinted by the lights and ambient noise of the park at the center of town.

“What I remember most is the sounds — the inclement weather announcements, the ‘lost child’ announcements, the screams from the roller coaster,” Ms. Burrows said. “When they had the big cat show, I could hear them roaring at night when it got dark. The park was the soundtrack of our day-to-day.”

In the 1940s, Mrs. Mumie recalled, a bugle would announce the daily 4 p.m. circus act. “It was our signal to get out of the lake and go home for dinner,” she said. “Every mother in town could hear that bugle; you couldn’t be late.”

In 1977, after four generations of ownership, the Gibbs family sold the park to Abe Baker, a Miami nightclub owner, and his son, Larry. It was profitable for much of the next 30 years, though pieces began to slip away.

In 1990, many of the hand-carved carousel horses were auctioned off to fund construction of the water park. In 1998, operator error derailed the Jack Rabbit, injuring three riders. It reopened briefly, but was shut down again over safety concerns in 2002 and was demolished, with little fuss, in 2007. The Baker family sold the park that year, to Adrenaline Family Entertainment Inc. (now defunct), who in turn sold to Premier Parks, in 2011.

“There were rising costs, rising land values, and investment bankers were becoming a force in the industry,” Mr. Futrell said. The surviving small parks around the country “passed to a whole series of what I call the ‘hedge fund owners.’ The companies who run parks as investment vehicles, not their cherished family heirlooms. In Clementon’s case, part of the problem was not knowing what they wanted to be. A park with a history like Clementon’s should be a destination for enthusiasts, and it almost never comes up in conversation.”

In October of 2020, TD Bank filed a complaint against the park’s owners, alleging the mortgage hadn’t been paid in a year. In February, the bank filed an amended suit, seeking to foreclose.

“We don’t tend to think in business terms of something beloved, and now we’re being smacked with the reality of the millions of dollars it takes to operate a park,” Ms. Burrows said. “It’s hard hearing the word ‘auction’ and realizing this thing you loved is a commodity, and your cherished memories can be sold for parts.”

On community Facebook pages, commenters reminisced. Some expressed hope that someone might buy the place and “turn it around,” despite the redevelopment potential of 30 lakefront acres in the most densely populated state in the nation, in the midst of a housing shortage.

Petitions circulated, and a small local investment group tried frantically to raise enough money to bid for the park. For the residents of Clementon, the threat seemed existential.

When small-town parks disappear, “I think you lose a little bit of your soul,” Mr. Futrell said. “Part of the identity of the town. When people talk about Clementon in the future, what will that mean?”

What It’s Worth

One day after the bank’s foreclosure action, Bill Firestone, the founder and president of Capital Recovery Group, got the call to sell Clementon Park and Splash World.

Mr. Firestone calls himself “an architect of liquidity.” He uses the word “liquidity” a lot. “Throughout the distressed world, when there’s a request for a liquidity event, that’s where we come in,” he said.

In other words, Capital Recovery Group helps companies that need to sell their assets. Beyond that, Mr. Firestone is simply the guy people call when they need to sell something weird.

“I’ve sold so many unusual things in my career,” he said. “We’ve sold fun houses. Steel mills. A Keebler plant. A Kellogg’s plant. An Indian Motorcycle plant. A lotion factory. A turbine manufacturer. Stroh’s brewing. Miller brewing. Coca-Cola. Dairies. A lake.” In 2004, the company oversaw the auction of a major collection of Harry Houdini artifacts.

On the wall of his office near Hartford, Conn., Mr. Firestone has a massive graphic art piece proclaiming, “Everything Must Go!” A set of black shelves are loaded with memorabilia: bottles of Ralph Lauren cologne, mechanical parts, a two-foot-long model of a yellow kayak.

Really, he said, an abandoned amusement park isn’t much different from a closed steel mill. “It’s not operating. Every day you’re paying security, heat, the equipment is depreciating. The bank just wants to get their money. You have to sell it and move on.”

Still, he hoped the park would remain a park. “It’s unusual, once it gets to me,” he said. “But if it was sold all together as an enterprise, where someone could operate it, in this particular case, that would be the highest and best value.”

In short, even the man selling Clementon Park believed it was still worth more than the sum of its parts. But Mr. Firestone still couldn’t say exactly what the park might be worth, because nostalgia can’t be quantified.

“It’s a value measured by the purchaser,” he said. “It may be measured at zero, but if someone’s chasing something, it could be measured at a lot. What would you pay to have something you saw as a little kid? Is it worth more to you than someone else?”

The Fairy Godfather

Though many came in person to see the offerings, the auction of Clementon Park happened virtually, through Capital Recovery Group’s website. Before it began, the auctioneer explained how it would work: the first lot was for the park in its entirety. The highest bid would be held while the other lots were auctioned. If the combined selling price of those individual lots outweighed the overall bid, the park would be dismantled and sold in pieces.

Five minutes in, there was a high bid in place from an unnamed buyer: $2.37 million for the park, its real estate, rides, lake and any other assets.

Then, the liquor license sold for $16,000. The Ring of Fire loop ride went for $110,000, and the Thunder Drop for $125,000. The train: $85,000. Carousel: $95,000.

It took tense hours to get through all 410 lots, with more than 300 registered bidders. But in the end, Mr. Firestone said, “it wasn’t even close.” The park, intact and as is, went to the high bidder, a 49-year-old real estate developer named Gene Staples. And this was not the first time he’d made such a purchase.

In 2009, he attended an auction of Kiddieland, then Chicago area’s oldest amusement park, which was being demolished to make way for a Costco. For Mr. Staples this was a personal tragedy. “I remember, as a small child, going to Kiddieland,” he said. “The lights, the fantastic machines, rides in all shapes and sizes. The Ferris wheel. The carousel. Corn dogs and junk foods. It was a magical place. It was a place in your childhood that’s like a fantasy world.”

When he heard about the early 2020 closure of Indiana Beach, another park he remembered fondly from childhood, he couldn’t watch it happen again.

Founded in 1926 on Lake Shafer, 90 miles or so north of Indianapolis, Indiana Beach was family owned for its first 82 years. In 2008, it sold to one entertainment company, then to another. Early in 2020, citing financial woes, its owners announced that Indiana Beach was permanently closed.

“The loans got called, they closed, and it looked like this unique park would never operate again,” Mr. Futrell said.

But Mr. Staples couldn’t bear the thought. He had the means, and the promise of a $3 million loan from the county, which relies heavily on the park’s tourism draw. So, last April, as the pandemic closed businesses across Indiana, he bought it and has restored it, selling off newer additions that didn’t match the character of the park, and bringing back beloved vintage rides.

He restored traditions, too: the park’s costumed crow mascot bouncing down the midway, and fireworks over the lake every weekend in July. Indiana Beach reopened in June, and even with strict Covid-19 restrictions in place, had a profitable season.

“To me, it’s not so complicated,” Mr. Staples said. “Just listen to the people. If you give the people what they want, they’ll keep coming back.”

And the people want Indiana Beach to be what’s it’s always been — what Jerry Davich, a columnist for The Chicago Tribune, called “the poor second cousin of richer, popular amusement parks,” its attractions “hand-me-down yet cherished.”

It’s no accident those metaphors recall family. That’s who is supposed to own a park like Indiana Beach, Mr. Staples said.

“When you have investors and shareholders, you can’t make decisions based on emotion and passion, which is how these places were built,” he said. “You have to treat a family park like family would. You need to think outside the box, not ‘go to the board.’ You make decisions by saying, ‘let’s do it,’ whether it’s rational or not.”

Hope Springs

On a bright, warm Saturday, four days after the auction, Mr. Staples was at Clementon Park’s front gate, accompanied by two of his four children, Eiam, 14, and Isabella, 17. He was there make a list — a long, long list, it turns out — of things that need to be done in order to have the park up and running by Memorial Day. He also just wanted to get to know the place, having only seen it once before, on a quick visit a few weeks before the auction.

“This was brought to my attention by a ride supplier of ours who was like, ‘Maybe you should take a look,’” he said. Reading the park’s history online and taking a spin through some local Facebook groups were enough to get him on a plane. “The minute I saw it in person, I knew we needed to do it. I’ve never been there before, but it reminded me of where I grew up.”

Mr. Staples wasn’t in the market for a second amusement park, and certainly not one 750 miles from the first, but on the drive into town, as the water slides rose into view, he was already sold.

“It goes back to Kiddieland,” he said. “It was a tragedy that it was lost, and to see that happen again, to somebody else’s park, is an American tragedy. People tend to tell me about their home amusement parks. Maybe they’re not perfect, but to you, they’re magic. You think it’s just you, but it’s not.”

He and the teenagers climbed onto the carousel. They pulled the worn canvas cover up where it dragged on the ground and clipped it back into place, like giving the ride back its dignity.

“Amusement park rides to me are like kinetic sculptures,” Mr. Staples said. “Especially the vintage rides. They’re beautiful pieces of history — machines you have to keep up, keep painted, put love into. The mentality in America is, ‘This looks rundown, let’s replace it.’ But you learn over time that keeping what you have is what keeps people coming back.”

On inspection day, hearing that I’d grown up in this town, a woman examining a deep fryer asked if I was sad to see the park like this. It was hard to answer, because of course I saw the stillness and decay; but I could also see it just as it was, lit up and full of life.

Mr. Staples can see it too. He took in the old bathhouse, its peeling paint and broken windows, and noted they’d have to find some worthy use for a building so special. The log ride, built over the lake in the 1980s and in need of serious work, he called “amazing.” It’s a priority, he said, to have it running this summer.

In the dry stretch of grass where the Jack Rabbit stood, he asked about its hills and turns, wondering aloud whether it might be rebuilt.

Mr. Staples is a businessman, and he intends to update Clementon Park in ways that will make it viable and profitable. Part of the picnic grove will become a beer garden, and food vendors will replace coolers packed with homemade lunches. Some of the games along the midway may get a virtual reality makeover. And with a cellphone in every pocket, the untethered freedom of my own youth in the park may really be a bygone.

But the true draw, he believes, is the nostalgia itself; the promise that you can go home again, and when you get there, you’ll recognize the place.

“It’s a living, breathing thing,” he said. “That’s what will survive generation to generation. For now, we’re just the caretakers.”

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