City orders historic carousel out of Inner Harbor

The Inner Harbor's carousel, which has delighted children for three decades and drawn attention as an historic artifact, has been ordered to move by the end of March, a victim of sagging sales and unpaid bills.

But the man who brought the 106-year old Herschel Spillman amusement ride and its hand-carved wooden animals to the harbor is vowing to fight back, hoping donations and outrage will help overturn the city's decision to terminate his contract.

"They'll have to drag me out kicking and screaming," owner Richard H. Knight said Wednesday outside the carousel, which was closed for winter. "I mean, this city keeps losing things. They lost the Colts. They lost the ice rink at Rash Field. They lost the trapeze school. How many more things can we lose? This ride is an icon.

"What the harbor needs is more people, not less attractions."

But city officials say Knight has failed to file financial statements, has not paid his rent for five years and has let the venerable carousel — 41 years older than the one made by the same company that sits on The Mall outside the Smithsonian Institution — fall into disrepair.

"The city needs the site for other uses and requests that Knightco remove the carousel by March 31, 2012," a letter to Knight's Columbia-based company from the city solicitor's office says. The letter further warns that the amusement cannot accept patrons after Feb. 28, and that "time is of the essence."

"We have been extraordinarily patient with Mr. Knight," said M.J. "Jay" Brodie, president of the Baltimore Development Corp., the city's economic development arm. He was a champion of the carousel when it came to the harbor in 1981, at the time calling it a "gorgeous piece" and a "true antique."

"We simply reached the end," Brodie said on Wednesday. "We are at this point with regret. The gentleman has given a lot of time and effort."

The end of the carousel will be an end of an era, a lost chance for children and adults to play under a red and white big top and slip back into a time of simple pleasures, with few frills other than spinning around atop a wooden figurine.

Last year, in a Baltimore Sun magazine article on "100 things we love about Baltimore," the mother of Olympian Michael Phelps recalled watching her children ride the carousel "around and around with happy smiles spread across their faces."

Knight sought help from the Federal Hill Neighborhood Association on Tuesday night. Although the board took no official position, waiting instead to hear an explanation from the city, the nearly 50 attendees were "shocked and not happy about the news," according to board president Ryan Hada.

Brodie said the ouster of the carousel was unrelated to the nine proposals submitted by companies from the U.S. and Europe to revamp the look of the Inner Harbor waterfront. None of those plans includes the carousel site.

But Brodie did say that BDC members have dismissed seven of those proposals, including one from Knight and others for an aerial tram ride and zip line, volleyball courts and an "aerophare," or flying lighthouse, that would have taken people 130 feet up in the air for a panoramic view of the city.

Development officials said they did not send "turn-down" letters to two companies — a British company proposing a 200-foot-tall Ferris wheel, and a Baltimore-based firm proposing a carousel, bungee trampoline, wall-climbing and rappelling attraction, sky diving and a 200-foot-tall Ferris wheel.

Irene E. Van Sant, the project analysis director for the BDC, said no decision has been made on the proposals from those two companies. "We're still talking to them," she said.

But Jim Seay, the principal of Premier Rides of Baltimore, said his firm "is no longer involved in the RFP [request for proposal] process." He declined to comment further.

Van Sant said another request for proposals would likely have to be issued before anything could move onto the carousel site.

But Knight and his eldest daughter, Stacy Daft, said they believe the city's decision is about more than money. They said the city made it impossible for them to operate by denying repeated proposals to upgrade and sell food, and has long wanted to push them out.

Knight said that in its heyday, the carousel charged 75 cents a ride and his company took in more than $100,000. The city took out a 10 percent amusement tax and 12 percent for rent. The price of a ride is now $2, and Knight said that he's taken in no more than $25,000 each of the past several years.

"You can't run a business on that," he said, noting he let go his paid employees and now runs the carousel with the help of his four daughters, none of whom is paid. They do have their names etched on wooden animals they repainted.

Knight said he has paid his amusement tax but has not been able to afford his rent to the city, a little more than $2,500 a year. To him, the tiny amount of money owed means that the city is looking for an excuse to force him out and replace the carousel, either with another one or another attraction.

"It can't be about the money," he said, complaining that his attraction is not listed on any Inner Harbor brochures and is not mentioned on any sign post. He said he has pitched several ideas, including a train to bring children to the ride, and a larger concession stand with ice cream, all of which the city rejected.

Over the years, Knight said, the city has issued a stop-work order on a new concession stand — he had no permit — and made him stop selling popcorn outdoors because of an ant infestation. He said ridership on the carousel has suffered because the Inner Harbor has changed and doesn't attract as many families as it used to. He said he did his best business when festivals still came to the harbor.

"I'm not the reason the Inner Harbor is faltering," Knight said. "But I can bring it back."

Vandals and time have damaged the hand-carved animals. At least four horses are missing and in barns awaiting repair. One leg on each of two roosters is gone, as are ears and other small body parts from frogs and pigs. Many of the animals are cracked; students from Howard County High School paint the animals every year.

"The city needs to help us," Knight said, noting his attraction is among the cheapest — if not the cheapest —activity at the Harbor. "When the harbor is full of people, we're full. ... What do they want us to do, raise the price and take it out of the pockets of little kids?"

Knight said that he's fielded questions from others interested in the carousel, including the B&O; Museum, Symphony Woods in Howard County, and a park in Montgomery County.

The Baltimore Development Corp. and the city solicitor's office said Knight has no recourse but to leave the Inner Harbor. They say Knight has breached the terms of his 1999 monthly carousel concession agreement.

A "termination of agreement" letter sent by the city's law office is to the point, stating that if Knight fails to dismantle and remove the carousel, "the city reserves the right to remove it" and sell it. "The city will have no obligation to store the carousel so that it is protected from harm caused by the elements, or by any person," the letter adds.

Brodie faulted Knight for failing to maintain the attraction and for not keeping it open on a regular summer schedule. "We have been patient to a fault with Mr. Knight," Brodie said, noting that he, too, laments the loss of the attraction.

"In terms of life as we know it, the carousel lasted a very long time," Brodie said. "We appreciate it. But we have to deal with facts on the ground. We would have preferred that he had done well. But in 2012, the year that we're in, that kind of facility can't make it financially anymore."

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