Harrison County

FunTime owners promise Gulfport comeback despite hurdles

GULFPORT -- The owners of FunTime USA amusement park hope to open by July Fourth, despite a rift with neighbors over zoning for the property.

Co-owners Rafe O'Neal and Romy Simpson said they will reconfigure park plans so they will no longer need the rezoning that has delayed FunTime's return.

Hurricane Katrina destroyed the popular amusement park in 2005. O'Neal, nephew of the previous owner, and Simpson want to rebuild on the east side of Cowan Road at U.S. 90, across the street from the original location.

The Planning Commission has twice approved a request to rezone a portion of the property from neighborhood business to major business use. Ward 2 Councilman Ricky Dombrowski, who is over the area where FunTime wants to rebuild, indicated he would oppose the rezoning request when it came before the City Council on Tuesday. Often, council members respect the wishes of the ward representative.

The owners of the acreage FunTime wants to lease withdrew their rezoning request at the council meeting.

"After careful consideration, this has proven to be a divisive issue," attorney Bill Williams, who represents the property owners, told council members. He said the property owners want to work with the city's ad

ministration to bring back FunTime. "That way," he said, "everyone wins."

Residents of Georgia Place, the neighborhood north of the proposed location, oppose FunTime because they fear it will bring noise and too much traffic.

Georgia Place lost 16 of 25 neighborhood homes to Katrina. There are now 15 homes and 10 empty lots, resident Don Wojcik said. Wojcik had prepared a statement for the council meeting that said, in part: "The majority of homeowners are here today to voice their objections. We invested blood, sweat and tears trying to make our neighborhood whole again ... How would you like to have 20 or 30 kids in your backyard every day, seven days a week, 12 hours a day? Not a pleasant thought."

O'Neal told the Sun Herald that FunTime plans to put its noisiest ride, a go-cart track, on the south end of the property near the highway. He also said FunTime plans to plant trees to absorb noise. Property also sits between FunTime and the neighborhood.

FunTime went to court years ago over noise, resolving the problem by building a berm and planting shrubbery between the park and the neighborhood to the north at its old location. O'Neal said the park received no noise complaints after that solution in 1981.

FunTime has the financing to move forward with its plans, said Dennis Tynes, owner of Sprout Community Development Entity. Sprout is certified by the U.S. Treasury Department to raise money for projects that save or create jobs in low-income areas. He has previously worked on projects that include Kress Live, a music venue in downtown Biloxi.

Many amusement parks have been proposed on the Coast, but Tynes said FunTime has the brand, the dream and the support to succeed. Opponents have suggested FunTime find another location, but the owners searched for years before settling on the current site. They have invested time and money in the site.

"We are not planning to leave Gulfport," Tynes said. "We have Plan A, Plan B and Plan C."

He said FunTime will create 47 jobs and those jobs will pay above minimum wage.

FunTime's rebirth has inspired support Coastwide. A FunTime Facebook page had 4,626 likes Tuesday afternoon. Supporters also showed up for the council meeting. Beforehand, Simpson handed out T-shirts from a car trunk for supporters to wear in the council meeting. The shirts said in big letters across the front, "Gulfport City Council Vote Yes!"

Harold Keller of Gulfport proudly wore one of the shirts. He's 78 now, but as a young man in the early 1960s worked for a previous owner of FunTime. He ran the rides, he said. He said FunTime was good for Gulfport and the Coast.

Maggie Fletcher, 22, of Long Beach remembers her childhood visits to FunTime before the hurricane. She showed up to support the amusement park, too.

"I loved it," said Fletcher, who also donned a T-shirt. "I remember almost getting myself sick on the Tilt-a-Whirl after I rode it so many times. My Dad said, 'OK, you're not riding it again, so go find something else to ride."