A couple of weeks ago, my wife was driving down 21st Street. My six-year-old daughter was riding in the back seat. As they passed Zingo, Bell's Amusement Park's classic wooden roller coaster, she started talking with excitement about all the rides she'd be able to ride this summer, now that she's taller. Although she's little, she's a petite powerhouse, always brave enough to ride anything they'd let her on.
My wife had to break the bad news to her: We won't be able to go to Bell's this summer. They're closed forever, and they're taking all the rides away.
My daughter burst into tears and sobs. I imagine a lot of other Tulsa children will have the same reaction.
Even though Bell's has been around for more than half of Oklahoma's history, since before that 1957 Plymouth Belvedere was buried in front of the County Courthouse, the landmark won't be around for this summer's centennial celebrations.
It would be the most natural thing in the world for visitors here to see the opening of a mid-century time capsule to cap off their visit with an evening at a traditional, family-owned amusement park. But thanks to Tulsa County Commissioner Randi Miller, Wilbert Collins and Bob Dick, her two former colleagues, and Clark Brewster and Jim Orbison, the other two Tulsa County Public Facilities Authority (TCPFA -- a.k.a. the Fair Board), they won't get that chance.
It's funny: When Miller, Dick, and Collins were trying to convince us to vote for the Vision 2025 sales tax, they talked about the need to provide entertainment options for Tulsa residents, to keep Tulsa area residents spending money here, instead of spending it down the turnpike in Oklahoma City.
But when they had a chance to allow an existing entertainment venue to stay in business, a venue that makes money for the TCPFA at no cost to the taxpayers, Miller, Dick, Collins, Brewster, and Orbison chose last November to give Bell's the boot and to do so in the ugliest possible way. After the end of Bell's 2006 season, without any warning to the public, the TCPFA notified Bell's that they had four months to clear off of the property after 56 years in that location.
So now Tulsa families who want to ride a roller coaster or splash down a log flume this summer will have to drive 100 miles down the turnpike to Frontier City, where they'll help fill the sales tax coffers of Oklahoma City and Oklahoma County.
This is old news, you say, but the issue is still relevant as the City Council convenes Thursday night, April 5, at 6pm, to decide whether to annex the Tulsa County Fairgrounds (a.k.a. Expo Square), one of a handful of unincorporated enclaves surrounded by but excluded from the City of Tulsa's jurisdiction.
The TCPFA, the public trust which operates the Fairgrounds on behalf of the Tulsa County Board of Commissioners, is the heart of the opposition to annexation. Their dire predictions of doom and disaster if annexation is approved need to be evaluated in light of their overall credibility and transparency.
Last Thursday night, the TCPFA held a public meeting regarding construction at the Fairgrounds and annexation. The meeting was called on three days' notice and was scheduled to coincide with the City Council's regular weekly meeting, preventing any of the City Councilors who support annexation from attending.
Although Miller, the chairman of the TCPFA, denies that the conflict was intentional, the time of the weekly City Council meeting hasn't changed since four years ago, when she was the council's chairman.
In response to my questions about the future of the 10.4 acres being vacated by Bell's, Miller acknowledged that the Fair Board didn't have a new use in mind for the land and don't have a timeline for choosing a new use.
So what was the hurry? I asked. Why did the TCPFA not allow Bell's to have one final season at the Fairgrounds in 2007?
We would have had a chance to say our farewells to a place where three generations of Tulsans made memories. The Bell family would have had time to plan for an orderly transition to a new location. People who hadn't gone to Bell's in years would have returned for a final visit, providing some extra revenue to help finance the move. And the TCPFA would have benefited from another few hundred thousand dollars in rent.
Board member Brewster, a trial attorney who is smart enough to understand what I was asking, pretended that he didn't. He took my question about one final season and responded that letting Bell's open in 2007 would mean requests to open again in 2008 and 2009, ad infinitum.
I pressed the issue: If Bell's had been allowed to open for one final season in 2007, what is the worst that could have happened?
Brewster responded with a torrent of obfuscation, cutting off the discussion by saying it had all been hashed out before and there was no need to address the issue again.
The fact that they refuse to provide a logical and straightforward rationale for the timing of the eviction, added to the fact that the decision was made before the new County Commissioners took office -- both of whom have reputations for honesty and forthrightness -- gives the impression that someone is hiding something. And it may be that the real motivation for resisting annexation is a fear of any degree of oversight from the City over whatever hidden plans are in motion.
Who gains financially from Bell's eviction? Not the TCPFA. Year after year, Bell's was consistently Expo Square's biggest rent-payer, paying more than Driller Stadium and Big Splash combined. The approximately $12.5 million in rent over the years was nearly pure profit to Expo Square; Expo Square's expenses to host Bell's were negligible.
Despite improvements to nearly every other square inch of the Fairgrounds, Expo Square never even bothered to pave the parking lot that served Bell's.
If the land Bell's sits on had been for sale, their rent would have paid for it long ago. As a point of comparison, a proposed theme park in the Phoenix area was looking at spending $60 million for 200 acres. That's $300,000 an acre in 2007 in a far more expensive part of the country, compared to $1.2 million an acre, if you average Bell's rent payments over the 10.4 acres of the park.
The Monster of the Midway
The immediate financial beneficiary of Bell's eviction is Jerry Murphy, owner of Murphy Brothers Exposition, the carnival company that last year was granted a 10-year, non-competitive contract to operate the Tulsa State Fair midway. Murphy's rides will no longer have Bell's rides as competition for fairgoers' dollars, and the pent-up demand from a summer without Bell's ought to boost his bottom line even more.
Murphy's new contract even includes the right of first refusal to expand his operation into the Bell's tract during the State Fair, if Bell's was no longer a tenant.
Why would the fair board be anxious to help Murphy Bros.?
Miller's campaign for mayor was boosted by a $5,000 contribution from Jerry Murphy's wife Loretta. Wilbert Collins' unsuccessful re-election campaign was run by Bob Jackson, who had been a long-time employee of Murphy Bros., serving as director of marketing and advertising. (He's still listed as a point of contact on the Murphy Bros. website.)
The eviction of Bell's isn't the only reason why City Councilors shouldn't trust what some members of the fair board and Expo Square management are saying about annexation. They've been fudging their answers on several other issues as well.
The fair board has been trying to blur the line between law enforcement and event security, making the claim that, if the Fairgrounds is annexed, the City would become responsible for providing security at the Tulsa State Fair, currently handled by the Tulsa County Sheriff's Office, along with 160 reserve deputies who volunteer their services in exchange for free admission, free food, and (once they're off duty) free beer.
While the Tulsa Police Department would become the primary law enforcement agency and would respond to calls for service, they wouldn't be responsible for security for any event at the Fairgrounds any more than they're required to provide free bouncers for the nightclubs on Brookside.
The Tulsa State Fair is a paid-admission event run by the TCPFA for the financial benefit of the TCPFA. Like any other business owner, the TCPFA is responsible for maintaining order and keeping its customers safe. If the sheriff refuses to help, as he has threatened to do if annexation goes forward, the TCPFA has the responsibility to make other arrangements.
During Thursday's meeting, a Fairgrounds neighbor asked Expo Square CEO Rick Bjorklund whether Expo Square hired outside security. Bjorklund began rambling about all the unanswered questions that are swirling around annexation, which is why annexation shouldn't be considered, what with all the swirling, unanswered questions.
I interrupted and pointed out that Bjorklund was in a position to answer the neighbor's very specific question: Does Expo Square hire security services to protect its property? Bjorklund answered yes.
In fact, every tenant and exhibitor at Expo Square is responsible for providing its own security. The claim that annexation would burden the City with an extra $500,000 in law-enforcement costs is bogus.
Then there's the claim that the increased sales tax rate and regulatory oversight that will come with annexation will drive away major events like the Chili Bowl and the Arabian Horse Show.
It's telling that most of the mentions of tax on the exposquare.com website are about all of the wonderful improvements that have been made thanks to higher sales tax and use tax rates. Roughly $20 million in construction is underway to accommodate the Arabian Horse Show. Were the show's promoters drawn by our new facilities or deterred by the higher tax rate as Miller seems to be claiming?
Will the City's noise ordinances stop the Chili Bowl? That shouldn't have to happen. New ventilation equipment in the Expo Building means they can keep the doors shut without asphyxiating the fans, and that's cut a lot of the excessive noise. If there's still a violation, Expo Square can take further steps to insulate the building or to seek regulatory relief from the City Council.
Annexation of the Fairgrounds would be an unmitigated financial benefit to the City of Tulsa. Indeed, it would benefit all of Tulsa County by adding some regulatory oversight to an operation that has a tendency to hide what it's up to and to act in ways that are contrary to the public's best interest.
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