HUNTSVILLE, Ala. (AP) — In the early 1960s, a fantastic Disney-style park was under construction between Huntsville and Madison beside Lady Ann Lake.
Space City USA would have a skyway ride, lunar restaurant, glass-bottom boat, floating amphitheater, mini volcano and simulated moon colony, plus sky-is-the-limit potential for tourism. After a brief period of celebrity endorsement and public fascination, it spiraled into financial free-fall, declaring bankruptcy and finally auctioning assets in 1967.
A March 18 story in The Times told of the theme park's exciting early days and eventual decline into a local history footnote.
Dr. J.P. Ballenger decided Space City's failure would make a good topic for his graduate students in the University of Alabama in Huntsville's summer Project Management class. Ballenger called the park failure a "perfect case study because it was "local, very interesting, and its failure was listed as 'mysterious.'"
Those students, most working toward an MBA, spent weeks coming up with diagrams, timelines, stock records, park comparisons and Power-Point presentations to support conclusions in several key areas.
Their thoughts on the long-defunct park are just theories, of course, but are from teams of highly educated students who used modern management ideas to form the best guesses in 45 years about why a $5 million idea fizzled.
Among the questions: Was it too ambitious? Was the land too challenging? Was weather a factor? Was there too much competition?
In short, yes.
Highlights of their findings:
• According to National Weather Service records, in January 1964 just as park construction began, Huntsville recorded a record 17.1-inch snowfall that stayed on the ground seven days.
• A record 23.3 inches of rain fell March and April, surely causing construction delays.
• January 1966 saw a record-setting 11 degrees below zero and 7 inches of snow.
• There seemed to be a lack of organizational direction and scope.
• The decision-making process was not agreed upon.
• Preliminary designs and economic studies should have been done before construction.
• Project leaders had no experience in theme parks.
• No deep pockets, Space City operated as a "pay as you go scheme."
• They bought an expensive train before developing critical park infrastructure.
• There was too much reliance on stock sales.
• Focus was split: Was the idea to generate investors or attract customers?
• "They grossly underestimated the cost."
• "We doubt that Space City would have had the money available needed to make the changes to its rides" in the future.
• Modern surveys show people go to theme parks for fun, not education.
• Where was Dr. Wernher von Braun, who could have helped sell the idea? "Working with Disney."
• "They haven't built a brand," like Walt Disney with his mouse and castles.
• Organizers spent "way too much money" printing brochures and going places for research.
• Disney was able to partner with ABC to finance his parks.
• "They already had a Space City, if you will, in Disneyland."
• The 850-acre site was swampy and filled with tree stumps.
• "They should have done it in phases."
• Potential flooding issues were never addressed.
• "The land was a larger problem than they ever thought it would be."
The class professor said the students' report "far exceeded my expectations.
"In general, what they determined was that Space City was 'living hand to mouth,' depended almost totally on stock sales, and lacked adequate initial financing, when compared to other similar amusement parks of that era," he summarized.
"Space City investors did not have the deep pockets of Walt Disney or others like him to bail them out when troubles arose," said Ballenger, an associate research professor and director of the UAH Center for the Management of Science and Technology.
"Project leadership suffered, initial project planning (budget and schedule) appeared to be lacking, and what appeared to be 'fast tracked' construction was hampered by extremely bad weather," Ballenger said.
Still, the idea of a big theme park in Huntsville captured the students' imaginations, just as drawings of rocket rides, a moon colony and a spewing volcano dazzled young people in the early 1960s.
"It would have been a great park to have been placed here in Huntsville," one student said wistfully in his presentation.
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