Remember Auto World?
Auto World was the theme park that opened in Flint in July, 1984. It was supposed to tell the glorious story of the automobile with exhibits like a giant car engine. It had all the goodies: animatronic robots, an amusement park... even a mannequin representing Jacob Smith, the founder of Flint. You walked into Smiths humble cabin, pressed a button, and a film was projected onto the mannequins face, welcoming you to Auto World.
But this was one jalopy that soon ran out of gas. It proved to be about as popular as Refrigerator World or Naugahyde Seat World. Auto World went bankrupt within a year for lack of customers... possibly, they headed just up the way to Chicken Dinner World in Frankenmuth instead.
Now, Michigans Department of Natural Resources is being asked to sell 1,800 acres of state land for a theme park in Grayling that promises to bring thousands of jobs to the area, along with more tourists. But to paraphrase a line from the film Sixth Sense: I see Auto World.
Graylings chamber of commerce is lobbying the State to sell the land for a proposed $161 million theme park which would be built just off I-75. More than 2,000 residents of Crawford County have signed petitions supporting the project. The new park would bring many more people in search of jobs to Crawford County, not to mention a flood of chain stores, restaurants and motels.
But, as noted in published reports, theres doubt as to whether developer Patrick Crosson of Axiom Entertainment in Rochester Hills can pull off the project. He was involved in a theme park in Indiana in the 1990s that went bust, and he emerged from personal bankruptcy in 2006.
Still, Walt Disney owned a number of companies that went broke before he hit the right formula. After his first company collapsed, Disney reportedly survived by eating dog food. His theme parks turned out okay, so perhaps it‘s unfair to count a bankruptcy or two against an entrepreneur willing to stick his neck out.
But theme parks in general are on a downswing across the country: the $30 million Wild West World in Kansas closed within two months of opening last year. Cypress Gardens, the oldest theme park in Florida, went bust in 2004 after a major upgrade (and three hurricanes). And in 2006, Six Flags decided to sell three of its 30 theme parks because the chain is $2.1 billion in debt and has suffered a 13% drop in attendance. Overseas, Euro Disney is on the skids.
Even Cedar Point, the worlds largest amusement park, in Ohio, which is within half a days drive of some 50 million people, cut its admission prices in 2006 because attendance has dropped at the park.
Speaking of which, why would anyone want to drive 200 miles or more to a theme park in Grayling when Cedar Point is a short hop from Detroit and boasts 68 rides, some of which are acknowledged as being among the best in the world?
But the real question is what do we residents of Northern Michigan want our home to become? The scales can tip toward more urban sprawl and chain stores, or toward scenic beauty and a pleasant place to live and raise a family: you cant have both.
The developers claim their park will bring more tourists to Northern Michigan, but it‘s also possible that the reverse is true over the long run.
When I first visited Grayling from Detroit in the late 70s, it was the forests, clean air and wild atmosphere of the place that made my heart soar. It was the way up north sensation that made me want to visit Northern Michigan.
True, some hearts might soar at the sight of the worlds tallest Ferris wheel and Christmas tree, a race track, roller coasters and a water park which are proposed for Grayling. But people with that sort of mindset might be more inclined to visit Cedar Point, what with gas prices heading to $4 per gallon this summer.
But for the folks who come up north to “get away from it all“ for hunting, fishing, hiking, sailing, snowmobiling, skiing, cycling (and shopping, by the way), the sight of the worlds tallest Ferris wheel and Christmas tree at our gate would likely be a depressing reminder that Northern Michigan is in danger of becoming as butt-ugly as the rest of America as a result of urban sprawl.
In the long run, this dubious park would be one more nail in the coffin of killing off Northern Michigans wild, outdoor appeal and everything that makes your heart soar when you hear the words “up north.“
And who will pick up the pieces if this thing takes a dive like Auto World?