grandest dream of the 1980s turned into one of citys colossal
failures of the century: AutoWorld.
memories of the short-lived and since-demolished theme park �
conceived as a new element for the local economy and a boost to
downtown � bring pain, snickers and ridicule for the community.
of the indoor parks creation and collapse is rife with examples
of poor planning and missed opportunities. Few today, in the wake
of its failure and demolition, defend it, but that wasnt
the case early on. And some still think it could have been salvaged
with changes and different marketing.
in the early 1970s as an automotive hall of fame, the first plans
called for it to be built on a man-made island in the Flint River
was jettisoned, in part because Midland in the meantime developed
an automotive hall of fame.
While a dozen
years ticked by, the plans changed several times as different
consultants and designers were involved and civic leaders could
not agree to proceed.
AutoWorld would make Flint a tourist destination, that it would
provide entry-level jobs in the midst of a severe local recession,
bolster new downtown businesses such as the Hyatt Regency Hotel
and Windmill Place and help diversify the countys tattered
economy, which was dominated by General Motors.
By the late
1970s, the concept had evolved into a complex plan for a combination
theme attraction and an automotive-related entertainment center.
It was to be one of the first indoor theme attractions � a concept
that has not worked out well in other locations throughout the
as a $30-million dream was on its way to becoming an $80-million
S. Sheaffer, the former president of the Flint Area Conference
Inc., which pushed for the construction of AutoWorld, the Hyatt
and other downtown redevelopment projects, said he was proud to
be associated with the planning of AutoWorld.
AutoWorld was a silly dream, but I dont think so,
Sheaffer said. The people who were involved in the design
and development of AutoWorld were very talented people, skilled
knew it wasnt going to be easy to make it (AutoWorld) work.
When it opened, the general overall quality was evident, with
a couple of exceptions.
noted that Flint was suffering high unemployment then, and that
tourism was the fastest-growing industry in Michigan at the time.
He said many
of Flints top community leaders in FACI wanted to tap some
of those tourist dollars, even though many naysayers were predicting
that tourists would never come to Flint. Supporters countered
by pointing to nearby Crossroads Village, which had become one
of the top 10 tourist attractions in the state.
As late as
April 1982, the trustees of the Mott Foundation � a crucial financial
backer � were undecided. A Flint Journal poll that month of seven
of the 11 members of the Board of Trustees found only one � retired
AC Spark Plug General Manager Joseph Anderson � who was solid
in his support for the project.
arent going to go ahead with something thats doomed
even before the start, said Harding Mott, son of foundation
founder Charles Stewart Mott and father-in-law of William S. White,
president of the foundation. Its a worthwhile attempt,
but it would not be right for the community if its not going
to work out.
July 1982, White announced that the foundation would proceed with
its funding for the project, which already had received commitments
for state and federal grants, as well as $1 million from the General
than once, White announced that the project was in doubt because
of delays in reaching agreement about the complex financing.
a three-hour trustees meeting Sept. 30, the board voted to proceed.
It was not a unanimous decision, but the break-down in votes has
never been made public.
that encouragement in the form of a letter by Mayor James W. Rutherford
and a front-page editorial by The Flint Journal were key factors
in the Mott board decision.
who was defeated by James A. Sharp when he sought his third term
as mayor in 1983, said in a recent interview that he does not
regret his support for AutoWorld.
said that nowadays many people claim they thought AutoWorld was
a dumb idea from the beginning. Few people were saying that at
the time, he said.
were few people then who thought it wasnt going to succeed,
he said. I thought it would work out, that it was a good
project for the community.
Rutherford said he thinks AutoWorld may have tried to be too many
things for too many people, but he said maybe the problem was
that there werent enough funds set aside for the huge start-up
costs such a project would encounter in its first year.
after the decision to proceed, just before the groundbreaking
in October 1982, White was insisting that AutoWorld had to be
ready to open on the Fourth of July 1984 � less than two years
still painting the huge facility on opening morning. There was
no time to work out the bugs, of which there were many.
what was AutoWorld?
It was not
an auto museum, although it had a small display of historic trend-setting
cars and trucks; it was not a science center, although it had
elements of that. And it was not a clone of EPCOT at DisneyWorld,
although it borrowed some ideas from that huge attraction.
included a gigantic model of a car engine, a river running through
a recreation of old-time downtown Flint � complete with Vehicle
City arches � and a mishmash of entertainers, food vendors,
rides and displays.
sky-lit dome built onto the old IMA Auditorium to house half of
the park was a spectacle and an engineering marvel in itself.
thus became a hodgepodge of conflicting ideas, as though the designers
couldnt decide what they wanted to do. The attraction was
not easy to explain and probably impossible to portray in television
commercials, which became part of AutoWorlds troubled history.
producer Richard Moore, who made the television commercials for
the facility, made it appear that AutoWorld was a thrill park,
which led many out-of-town visitors to be disappointed. He said
he thought AutoWorld was too boring to attract people
on its own merits.
the two so-called dark rides were a major disappointment.
Costing millions to design and build, the rides were the major
attractions inside AutoWorld. One was designed to be a humorous
history of the automobile, with lots of Flint history, while the
other was designed to capture the spirit of several of the nations
leading auto race tracks.
two dark rides did not live up to expectations, said Ghassan
Saab, president of Sorensen-Gross construction company of Flint
Township and one of the major contractors on the AutoWorld job.
They were supposed to rival the best of the Disney attractions,
since they were designed by former Disney planners, but they didnt
Saab said he thinks after AutoWorlds collapse, the owners
should have been willing to spend the big money to build the kind
of thrill rides that so many people wanted.
pre-opening situation looked encouraging when it was announced
that Six Flags would run AutoWorld under contract, since the company
had years of experience in running theme parks around the country.
considerable media interest in Six Flags weekly announcements
about attendance figures.
told a grim story: a strong start, a week-by-week decline and
an announcement in September � just two months after opening �
that the company would no longer issue such reports.
AutoWorld in its first year drew about 460,000 customers when
600,000 were expected.
and AutoWorlds ownership group, CRI of Rockville, Md., went
to the Mott Foundation in January 1985 demanding a subsidy to
keep AutoWorld open.
by announcing that he had no intention of putting up the funds.
The Mott Foundation was not going to start giving subsidies to
theme parks, White said, not even AutoWorld.
back that it was going to temporarily close AutoWorld in two days.
was done. AutoWorld was tagged as a loser and an object of ridicule
by nearly everyone, including many former backers.
who had been defeated for re-election the previous year, said
he was concerned at the time.
business that opens and closes and opens and closes is in trouble,
he said. If you dont know if a clothing store is going
to be open, you arent going to drive over there.
has said frequently over the years that AutoWorld would not have
closed even temporarily if he had remained mayor.
have persuaded Bill White and the Mott Foundation to do something
to avoid closing it, he said. I think the Sharp administration
didnt care, so they did nothing.
S. Olof Karstrom,
city attorney in the Sharp administration, denied that, saying
that City Hall came close twice to reaching agreement to modify
AutoWorld, but the deals fell through. There were many attempts
to fix the problems, he said.
were a lot of studies done on what to do, he said. The
trouble with AutoWorld was that it was a one-shot deal. People
came once and they werent interested in going back.
reopened in May 1985 with a limited schedule, fewer employees
and a reduced admission price, but the doom-and-gloom atmosphere
never left, despite a $2-million effort to add new attractions,
including a musical revue staged in an outdoor tent.
Foundation and CRI agreed to cover the first year losses, with
the foundation paying $4.5 million and CRI contributing another
year of red ink, Six Flags announced that it was bailing out on
AutoWorld. CRI was forced out in December 1985, replaced by a
Flint-based corporation, Flint Renaissance Inc.
there were some brief and somewhat successful efforts to keep
AutoWorld running with a reduced staff and limited hours, AutoWorld
was tarred forever as a stupid idea.
director of the Downtown Development Authority under Mayor Matthew
S. Collier, said he and Robert Lamb made an $82,000 profit in
the year they ran AutoWorld with a tiny staff of a half-dozen
full-time employees. They kept AutoWorld running by scheduling
special events, such as boat and auto shows, in the late 80s.
There was also a short-lived effort about the same time to run
the IMAX theater as an independent enterprise, but that effort
was little support for keeping AutoWorld going, even with a small
profit, he said.
politicians didnt want to risk another failure, he
said. Collier wanted to reopen it as a theme attraction,
but his staff warned him he was risking his political future if
it failed again.
was done as a theme park, but it could have been resurrected as
a new concept, a kind of convention center with a different twist.
But there was no consensus to do it.
he tried to talk to White about its future when White was considering
whether to demolish it.
(White) knew I had my heart and soul in it (AutoWorld),
he said. He asked me before he decided to tear it down what
him that I had done everything I could, but I couldnt guarantee
him that it would work. ... He said that all the alternatives
had been explored. It was coming down.
was permanently closed in January 1991, and demolished in 1997.