LOUISVILLE, Ky (WHAS11) -- One week before the Koch family withdrew their Bluegrass Boardwalk proposal, the Holiday World owners expressed concerns to the Kentucky State Fair Board about government red tape and a loss of flexibility by running a park owned by the state.
Fair Board President Harold Workman disclosed the meeting on Monday in an interview with WHAS11 News.
"They weren't sure that it worked with their model," Workman said. "But, that being said, all the issues -- and there were only two or three that they brought up that day -- we were able to work through to their benefit where they would like to have it."
"I thought that we had dealt with what their concerns were," Workman said.
But the would-be CEO of Bluegrass Boardwalk said when she sat down with three other family members on Friday, the realities of Kentucky bureaucracy and the recent turmoil with Fair Board leadership was just too much to overcome.
"We know that Mr. Workman - who we have worked very well with and is just outstanding - he's going to be leaving the fair board," Koch said. "And, that kind of uncertainty made us really nervous in a business environment."
"It should not have," Workman responded, "because if you have the appropriate lease and the appropriate terms of the lease - you're talking about 50 year leases here no matter what company it is that's going to put the park back together."
Louisville Mayor Greg Fischer said his office offered to help as the Fair Board picks up the pieces. The failed negotiations consumed eight months with nothing to show for it, today.
"I will suggest, when we talk to the fair board, a few kind of cut-off points earlier in the process that maybe could preclude a deal like this going on for months and months and finally getting to this answer," Fischer told reporters at an unrelated business announcement Monday morning.
Both Fischer and Workman declined to cast blame anyone for this second breakdown in amusement park talks in the last year.
"Hindsight is always 20/20 as you know," Workman said. "Myself and my staff offered on many occasions - when you get into a situation where you don't know what to do, please let us know, don't let it fester."
Former Kentucky Kingdom owner Ed Hart suggests that the Koch family was trying to reduce competition for Holiday World.
"It's just absurd," Koch said. "Our family is not that way."
Workman also defended the Koch's, yet said their discomfort with government dealings revealed a naivete.
"I think naive," Workman said, "Certainly not disengenous. They negotiated in good faith, they're great people to work with.
Naive - Workman says - because the government has to be involved to look out for the public interest, especially if taxpayer dollars are involved.
It didn't take long for other amusement park companies to inquire about Kentucky Kingdom.
On the first business day since Holiday World owners killed Bluegrass Boardwalk, at least two other national theme park companies are now expressing interest.
"I think it's still going to be an opportunity for someone, an operator to open up," Workman said. "maybe who is a little bit more comfortable in dealing with public agencies , state government regulations, etc."
Workman called re-opening the park a "top priority" of the fair board.
"We know how important it is," he continued. "It's unfortunate that we've had a couple of mis-starts. But I'm still confident that in the long run we'll get the park open and everybody will be very proud of it when its open and running again."
The failure of Bluegrass Boardwalk is the second time negotiations have collapsed since Six Flags abandoned the park in February, 2010.
Former Kentucky Kingdom owner Ed Hart says he still wonders why the Fair Board stopped negotiating with him last August.
Workman says it was Hart who walked away after the state would not meet his demands for a guarantee of tax credits.
"We think that Mr. Hart did and Mr Hart thinks that we did," Workman said. "So I guess its a stalemate on what the thought process is there."
Asked if he would reconsider negotiating with Hart, Workman said he has "never closed the door on anyone."
Koch said - despite an immediate 14 percent increase in annual attendance after Kentucky Kingdom closed - she still wants someone to re-open the Louisville park.
"I really dont feel like that creates any greater or less competition for us," Koch said. "I think even with a thriving park in Louisville, we would continue to thrive here."
Koch said the family business still wants to add a second theme park to its portfolio, but now it's time for a break and a re-focus on Holiday World.
Turmoil at Fair Board a factor in Bluegrass Boardwalk walking away from project
by Joe Arnold
Posted on June 18, 2012 at 12:28 AM
Updated today at 5:21 PM
SANTA CLAUS, Indiana (WHAS11) -- The impending and controversial departure of long time Kentucky State Fair Board President Harold Workman was a factor in the decision by Holiday World's owners to suddenly pull the plug on reopening the Kentucky Kingdom amusement and water park under a new name, the would-be Bluegrass Boardwalk CEO told WHAS11.
"We know that Mr. Workman, who we have worked very well with and is just outstanding, he's going to be leaving the fair board," Natalie Koch said. "And, that kind of uncertainty made us really nervous in a business environment."
In an interview with WHAS11, Koch said the question of Workman's status added to the Koch's family's anxiety about dealing with an amusement park that sits on land owned by state government.
Workman announced his retirement in March following weeks of controversy. In the midst of Gov. Steve Beshear questioning whether new leadership was needed for the Kentucky State Fair Board, particularly its management of the KFC Yum! Center, board members began a search for a Chief Financial Officer who would report to them. Workman, meanwhile, fired the arena's general manager and defied board calls to reinstate him.
"We just learned that Mr Workman was leaving not too long ago," Koch said. "That was a recent development and I think the fact that it started to take longer than we expected... you know, we signed the lease back in February, and we fully expected to be in the park by April and working hard to fix it up. The longer it took the more concerned we got that this might be an indication of what may happen in the future."
Koch, however, insisted that no specific action or stipulation triggered the decision to cancel the deal.
"Not the state government, not the fair board," Koch said. "There was nothing new imposed on it that changed in the last week. It was strictly a matter of a business decision that we decided it was too far from our business model here."
"In the beginning we thought it wouldn't be a problem," Koch continued, "and I apologize to the people of Louisville if this has been a surprise to them but we feel like it is the best decision for us."
Koch said the longer the Bluegrass Boardwalk group was exposed to the government environment that is the reality of Kentucky Kingdom, the more uncertain the group became.
"We don't know who's going to be there next year in Harold Workman's place," Koch said. "We don't know who the governor is going to be in four years. It's just too uncertain for us. We are very pragmatic and deliberate about what we do and that much uncertainty makes me nervous."