Letter fuels park effort; Its publication starts campaign to reopen Enchanted Forest; Meeting set for tomorrow; Children's attraction began operations on U.S. 40 in 1954


A letter in a local weekly newspaper has ignited an energetic movement in Howard County to resurrect the Enchanted Forest amusement park on U.S. 40 in Ellicott City.

Since Barbara Sieg's call for action was published in Ellicott City 21042/3 on Feb. 18, the weekly has received more than 150 e-mails, letters and phone calls from parents and children offering to help revive the amusement park, which closed in 1989 and briefly reopened in 1994 before closing again.

Several community activists have formed the Friends of Enchanted Forest, which will hold its inaugural meeting at 7: 30 tomorrow night at Cafe Bagel in the Lynwood Square shopping center in Ellicott City.

"That was what we needed," said Rick Lepski, who will chair the Friends of Enchanted Forest, of Sieg's letter. "We needed a boost, a push to get us started."

More responses arrive daily in the office of Ellicott City 21042/3 in the historic Main Street district, said Phyllis Greenbaum, editor and publisher of Zip Publishing Inc., which produces the weekly.

"It has de- veloped a life of its own," she said. "Some of the letters are heartbreakers."

Virginia Hamilton, 36, a special-education aide, wrote about summer trips to the amusement park with her father, Marvin E. Richie.

When she turned 7, the family moved to Magazine, Ark., where her father, a town marshal, was killed in the line of duty in 1977.

"A lot of times, I feel Dad's presence with me," said Hamilton, who returned to Ellicott City eight years ago and has three children. "It would be nice to take the kids to a place that I enjoyed with my father. It would mean a lot."

Sieg said she is bewildered by the outpouring of emotion generated by her letter.

'Overwhelmed' by response

"I truly didn't know what the response would be," said Sieg, a local activist who has also sought to preserve cemeteries and outlaw pornographic businesses. "I was really overwhelmed."

It's hard to blame Sieg for harboring low expectations. Enchanted Forest opened in 1954 -- a year before Disneyland in Anaheim, Calif. -- for preschool and elementary-school-age children too small or too scared to enjoy the heart-stopping rides at larger theme parks.

At Enchanted Forest, children ate birthday cake in Cinderella's Castle, frolicked in the Mother Goose picnic area and took a dip off the Robinson Crusoe mountain and water slide.

The park closed in 1989, a year after Towson-based JHP Development Inc. persuaded the county Zoning Board to rezone a parcel for the Enchanted Forest shopping center, which opened in 1992.

JHP Development could not be reached for comment.

County Council Chairman C. Vernon Gray, who was a Zoning Board member at the time, said development officials argued that they needed the shopping center to keep the theme park afloat.

"I remember asking questions about that, to get assurances that Enchanted Forest would remain open," Gray said.

When he heard of the closing, Gray said, he was "a little surprised and disappointed."

Tracy Kwok, co-owner of China Legend restaurant in the shopping center, said she was told that the amusement park would reopen.

"The landlord told us that when we signed our lease" seven years ago, Kwok said. "We're upset, and many of our customers have told us that they're upset, too."

The park's demise also surprised Linda Harrison Gardner, whose grandfather Howard E. Harrison Sr. told his grandchildren fables that became the genesis of the amusement park.

Gardner said her father, Howard E. Harrison Jr. -- who died in 1988, the same year he sold the park and its surrounding 32 acres for more than $4.5 million to JHP Development -- would have been saddened to witness what has happened to the park.

"I won't even go by there," said Gardner, who lives in Ellicott City and is a bank teller. "I try to go to the Safeway there, and I'll get into the parking lot, but I have to leave."

The issue for the Friends of Enchanted Forest is whether the owner, Mid-Atlantic Realty Trust in Linthicum, is willing to study the possibility of reopening the park.

When Mid-Atlantic Realty purchased the shopping center in June 1997, the amusement park was included in the deal.

County asked to buy park

Mid-Atlantic officials did not return several requests for comment, but John Byrd, the county's chief of parks and programming services for the Department of Recreation and Parks, said the realty company approached officials three years ago about the county's purchasing the park.

"It would be tough for us to take it on," he said. "I think it would be such a specialized type of program that we're not involved in now that we would have to be very careful about managing it properly."

Dozens have volunteered

Sieg said the projected $200,000 cost of repairing rides and updating the park to meet federal disability standards would be offset by the dozens of adults and children who have volunteered to help rehabilitate Enchanted Forest.

Steve Ryder, owner of Ballindullagh Barn Antiques in Ellicott City, has pledged to donate a portion of his weekend sales to a preservation effort.

"Everybody knows the place," said the New York native, who moved to Ellicott City in October. "If there's a possibility of bringing it back, let's bring it back."

Pub Date: 3/10/99

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