It's a question many of you have been asking for months now, what really happened to Bell's Amusement Park? News On 6 anchor Terry Hood reports members of the Tulsa County Fair Board say they had no choice but to let the park's lease expire last year. A News On 6 Investigation looks at the events that led to the decision.
"Are you bitter?” asked News On 6 anchor Terry Hood.
"Yes. I try not to be, but I am,” said Bell’s President Robby Bell.
A warehouse is the new home of Bell's Amusement Park. Zingo, the log ride and most of the rest, now sit in two un-air conditioned warehouses near downtown Tulsa. This is where the Bell family plans for the future, while trying to make sense of the past.
"I think it was taken from us,” said Bell. “For whatever reason certain people wanted us gone and they made that happen."
The relationship between Bell's Amusement Park and the Tulsa County Fairgrounds had its ups and downs over the last five decades. But the relationship finally ran off track last November. The question is, why?
"We are a public entity here, and we have to make decisions that's in the best interest of our constituents we represent," said Randi Miller, Tulsa County Fair Board Chairman.
So now the rides are gone, the trees are gone, and workers are just about finished converting the land to a parking lot. The Fair Board says it was forced to let Bell's lease expire. The board says the park was rundown, and that it was a hangout for rowdy teenagers. The Bells admit the park had problems, but they believe there's another reason for their departure.
"There are people who benefit financially if we're gone,” Bell said. “And whoever that is, that's the reason we're out of there.”
One of those people could be the Bells' main competitor, Jerry Murphy. Murphy has provided the midway for the Tulsa State Fair since the early 70s. The Murphy family also owns Big Splash. After decades of peaceful coexistence, Robby Bell says things went sour between the two families in 2005.
The Bells say that was a tough year for them, because the Fair Board had converted a parking lot next door into an RV park. The Bells say it hurt their business so much they convinced the Fair Board to lower their rent payment that year. And the Bells didn't stop there. To lure more people to the fairgrounds during the fair Bell's printed discount coupons in the paper, they say even though the whole fair benefited, Jerry Murphy saw it as more competition.
Murphy made his feelings known in a letter to the fairgrounds CEO, saying "Bell's should spend more time taking care of their own, tired equipment and quit blaming everyone else for their demise."
But the Bells think the Murphys did more than just write a letter. Records show Jerry Murphy's wife gave $5,000 to the campaign of Fair Board Chairman Randi Miller in 2004. And Jerry Murphy himself gave $5,000 to the campaign of new county commissioner John Smaligo, four months after he won his seat on the board, and four months after Bell's lease expired. But Fairgrounds CEO Rick Bjorklund says there was nothing more to the Fair Board’s decision than just good business.
"Leases are extended because value judgments are made, and as emotional as this situation pertaining to Bell's is, once you get, once you clear of the emotion, the business decision was a proper business decision," Fairgrounds CEO Rick Bjorklund.
However, the Fair Board's own records show that even in 2005, when Bell's had one of its worst years ever, the park still paid more rent than Big Splash and the Drillers combined. In 2005 Bell’s paid $147,066.53, Big Splash paid $125,000 and the Drillers paid $18,000.
The same was true in 2006, even though storm damage closed Bell's for three weeks that summer. In 2006 Bell’s paid $151,753.66, Big Splash paid $128,335.97 and the Drillers paid $18,000.
And the Bells say they were ready to make major improvements to the amusement park. The family had just won an 11-year battle to build a new wooden roller coaster twice the size of Zingo.
"When you add an attraction like that it drastically increases your bottom line and it gives you the ability to make all kinds of improvements," said Bell’s President Robby Bell.
The Bells say artists renderings show the hundreds of thousands of dollars in other upgrades they wanted to make, down to replacing the county's old chain link fence with wrought iron. The Bells say they spelled all this out in a business plan demanded by the board last year. It includes a letter from a Texas ride manufacturer agreeing to finance a $700,000 super loop ride. The Bells say all they needed was a five year lease in order to make the plan work. But the board chairman says the business plan was the biggest reason not to renew Bell's lease.
"If I could have found one person that would have told me that that business plan was something I could make a decision on, other than the decision I made, then I was willing to do that," said Miller.
Chairman Miller could provide no example of any other tenant being forced to even provide a business plan. That includes the Murphys who signed a new lease last year, just months before the Bells lost theirs. We asked her to explain.
The News On 6 asked, "In November of 2006 it was okay to demand a business plan from Bell's?"
"It is always. It is always," Miller responded
The News On 6 also asked Miller, "But in March of 2006 there was no request of a business plan from the Murphy brothers?"
"Well, what I do know is business plans will be asked on every tenant," said Miller.
That new lease the Murphys signed last year does contain a major change. It gave the Murphys the first choice at using the land occupied by Bell's, if Bell's were to ever leave.
Whatever the real reason for its departure from the fairgrounds, the Bell family is still looking for a new home for Bell's Amusement Park.
"We've got several spots where people want us to go,” Bell said. “We've just got to find the right deal so we can make it happen."
The Fair Board says the fact that Bell's doesn't have a home yet helps prove their point. They say if Bell's was a solid business with a solid business plan, that they, like the Drillers, would be courted by other communities.
The News On 6 does not know if the Murphys want to lease the land Bell's occupied. We asked repeatedly for an on-camera interview, but Jerry Murphy never returned our calls.
Watch the video: News On 6 Investigation: Why Is Bell's Gone?
11/8/2006 Bell's Amusement Park Lease Expires
11/9/2006 No Change Likely On Bell's Amusement Park Decision
11/10/2006 Bell's Says Tulsa County Treating Them Unfairly
11/11/2006 Complaints Begin After Tulsa Amusement Park's Lease Isn't Renewed
11/13/2006 Tulsans React To Bell's Troubles With Tulsa County
11/15/2006 No Decision Yet On Bell's Amusement Park Financial Review
11/19/2006 Interest Soars In Tulsa Amusement Park
11/20/2006 Bell's Amusement Park Looking To Move
11/22/2006 Tulsa County Fairground Rent Payments
11/28/2006 Bumpy Ride For Bell's Amusement Park Continues
11/29/2006 Bell's Amusement Park Asking For More Time To Move
12/19/2006 Bell's Future Still Vague
1/17/2007 Bell's Amusement Park Sells Ride To Tulsa County
1/26/2007 Rides Disappearing At Bell's Amusement Park
2/26/2007 Dismantling A Tulsa Landmark
3/8/2007 More Time To Dismantle Bell's Amusement Park
3/25/2007 Amusement Park Icon Coming Down
6/24/2007 Moving Day For Bell's Amusement Park
8/21/2007 County Seeks To Make Bell’s Business Plan Public