County puts Tulsa State Fair’s Skyride up for auction


By John Dobberstein, Editor

The Tulsa County Public Facilities Authority recently put the mothballed Tulsa Sky Ride up for auction, leaving the future of the iconic Tulsa State Fair ride more in doubt than ever.

TCPFA issued a request for sealed proposals for the Skyride and will be accepting bids until Jan. 13. The county is seeking proposals for an entity to either maintain and operate the Von Roll Sky Ride during the State Fair, or purchase, maintain and operate it. Both options above would include a negotiated agreement with terms and conditions.

The 10-page document describes two scenarios possible for bidders:

* If the Sky Ride was purchased, maintained and operated, the buyer would have to pay TCPFA a minimum of 25% of gross sales, “or provide proposed percentage split in response to the RFP”

* If the bidder only maintains and operates the Sky Ride, they’d have to pony up 45% of gross sales or propose a percentage.

The county said it will entertain “alternative payment options suggested by any proposer” in addition to the RFP options. The RFP says the successful proposer would be responsible for all maintenance, operations, staff and any other activity associated with the Skyride at the proposer’s sole cost.

Additionally, the county would control all ticket stock and ticket sales for the Skyride “will not be incorporated as part of any Midway wristband or ticketing promotions.”

A TCPFA “evaluation committee” will review and evaluate the bids, which are scheduled to be opened Jan. 13 at 1 p.m.

Proponents of the Skyride have reacted with some skepticism to the RFP, saying the terms are very unfavorable financially to potential bidders.

Tulsa County purchased the Skyride from Bell’s Amusement Park in 2007 for $600,000, a year after the lease for Bell’s was not renewed. Opening in 1965, the Skyride has received about $500,000 in improvements in the last several years but has not operated since 2019. The county’s RFP listed gross revenue from the ride of $183,000 in 2019 and $214,805 in 2018.

A copy of the most recent contract between TCPFA and DMC – the company that last ran the skyride – called for DMC to pay a 10% fee on the first $200,000 in gross admission income, 15% on the next $100,000 and 20% for income over $300,000. DMC did not respond to a request for comment on the auction or whether the company would bid.

Robby Bell, whose family owned and operated the amusement park, said his contract with Tulsa County from 2003 going back was he could choose 3 rides that were individually named that would be charged at a rate of 20% of whatever they grossed, which was Zingo, the Skyride and the Log Ride. Bell’s could then pick 3 additional rides that incurred a rental charge on a progressive scale. Bell said he believed that was somewhere around 30-33% of gross receipts.

“Our ride count fluctuated a lot because the fairgrounds wouldn’t give us more property,” Bell said. “We averaged 25 to 30 rides on property for the last 30 years we were open. Murphy would bring 60 to 65 roughly, so we had about 95 rides.

“Out of all those rides, Skyride was number one (in gross receipts). There was nothing else close to it, not even Zingo. But things change when you eliminate the amusement park. The ride gross will plummet,” Bell added. “Another reason it grossed more is that those types of rides have an hourly ride capacity with high volume. Thirty cars may be on the top and each car with 3 people – that’s 90 people.”

Earlier this year the Oklahoma State Historic Preservation Office issued a preliminary opinion determining the Skyride is eligible for inclusion in the National Register of Historic Places under entertainment/recreation and engineer criteria. The Tulsa Preservation Commission penned a letter to the county recently asking for the auction process to be delayed.

“The Tulsa Preservation Commission recognizes the Tulsa Skyride’s significance to the city’s history and encourages the pursuit of a nomination for the skyride to the National Register of Historic Places,” wrote Tulsa Preservation Commission chairman James E. Turner. “We ask the Tulsa County Public Facilities Authority to consider allowing the nomination to be completed before proceeding with the auction or demolition of the skyride.”

Scott Martin, a producer who is currently filming a documentary about the history of Bell’s Amusement Park and the community’s effort to save the Skyride, questioned the timing of the bid solicitation over the holiday period.

He’s been pushing the TCPFA to delay the auction as well, as NRHP registration could make the Skyride eligible for grant money.

Martin and the Save Our Tulsa Skyride group unveiled a list of potential solutions to the Skyride’s operating future.

For the skyride to thrive and maximize its potential, including profitability, creative out-of-the-box thinking with vision is needed, Martin said, with the best solution coming from a collaboration that includes participation by the people of Tulsa, industry professionals, historic preservation experts the Tulsa County Public Facilities Authority and Expo Square.

The Skyride group has brought up the idea of selling sponsorships on the gondolas to local businesses, but the RFP issued said no sponsorship rights would be granted without TCPFA permission.

The call for proposals, at first look, “does not appear to support a collaborative effort that includes public input. It also looks to be rigid, with little room for working out unique ways to cut costs for skyride operations such as taking advantage of synergies with Expo Square,” Martin said. “For example, taking the Skyride under Expo Square's insurance would make a huge difference for an independent operator.”

Relocating a ropeway is considered a new installation. All new installations must comply with the current codes and standards that regulate ropeways in the U.S. The Von Roll skyrides are grandfathered in that they may remain in operation only in their current location.

If a Von Roll skyride were to be relocated it would not meet the current design codes. Replacing it with a new Skyride would cost an estimated $6 million to $8 million.

Amanda Blair, chief operating officer for Expo Square, acknowledged receiving several questions from the Sentinel last week and promised a response. 

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