Tuesday, December 11, 2012

Six White Flags

Michigan is not the happiest place of states. (Oh, boy, are they ever not happy right now.) They haven't really been happy since the economic downturn of the 1970's, when the American auto industry lost its footing and never really got it back. Flint, particularly hard-hit, wound up becoming one of the more emblematic cities of the era.

Flint didn't like being one of the more emblematic cities of the era.

At the time, plans were in place to construct an automotive hall of fame. However, the concept was languishing, mainly because there already was one in the germinal stages and it had moved from Washington, DC to Midland in 1971. (It now sits in Dearborn.) People still wanted to do something with the concept, but after Midland got the hall of fame, it couldn't be that anymore. The plans languished for a decade while people tried to come up with a Plan B. And more to the point, agree on a Plan B. Designers, constructors and local officials couldn't get on the same page. And in the meantime, Flint, and Michigan, bore the brunt of the entire 1970's recession.

Now it's the 1980's. The recession was over, greed was now good, but Michigan hadn't come back. Finally, an idea has come forward: a theme park. Theme parks were in vogue at the time, and Six Flags in particular was laying down steel at a furious pace. To the organizers, this was their in. A Six Flags theme park it would be. A Six Flags theme park that told of the past glory of Flint, the glory of the American automobile that Flint helped create, and the glory that would surely come again.

And so in 1982, construction on Six Flags AutoWorld began.

AutoWorld was built as an EPCOT-style geodesic dome, or more accurately, a geodesic mound. Inside, you would find a highly idealized version of 1900's-era Flint, with cabins, a faux Flint River, and a faceless mannequin at the entrance. When you pushed a button, the face was lit up with a projection of the face of Jacob Smith, the founder of Flint, who would tell you about the history of the town. There'd be rides, there'd be an IMAX theater, it'd be great and tourists will flock to it and Flint will be back on the map in no time.

By July 1984, everything was ready. Six Flags AutoWorld was all set to announce Flint's return to the big time. There was ribbon-cutting, there were dignitaries, there was excitement.

There wasn't for long.

First off, that mannequin is creepy. Second, Flint just isn't that much of a tourist destination and never really has been. It was a factory town. Unless the history is overwhelmingly major, like at Gettysburg, tourists aren't showing up in Six Flags-type numbers to learn about a town's history. They'll do that only after they've been drawn to town for some other reason. Beaches, perhaps. Third, cars may be a good basis for a ride or two, but an entire theme park built around them really isn't a viable concept, not compared to a race track or go-karting. To have fun with cars, you pretty much need to drive the cars sooner or later, and the closest AutoWorld came to that was bumper cars.

Which leads to the fourth and probably principal problem: this is a Six Flags theme park, right? Six Flags! Aren't there supposed to be, like, rides here? Really fun rides? Bumper cars are the best this place can do? A carousel, really? A moving sidewalk? An arcade where all the games are provided by the D.A.R.E. program? Where are the roller coasters? Where is all the exciting stuff the ads were promising? Where is the stuff that makes this place more than a glorified museum? We came to Flint, Michigan to go to a glorified car museum? Why am I here looking at a gigantic car engine? This sucks!

People visted Autoworld. Once. They didn't come back. After the initial flurry of attention, some of which saw attraction closures and malfunctions as early as the second day, the park emptied out fast. Flint was also emptying out; the General Motors plant closings were underway and had been for some time. Unemployment was skyrocketing and would go even higher; crime was on the rise to the point where, when ABC's Nightline tried to do a story on the plant closings, they were cut off because a laid-off worker stole their news van in an incident that would eventually end up in the Michael Moore documentary Roger & Me. This was no place for an amusement park.

Within two months, AutoWorld stopped issuing weekly reports about how many people were coming to the park. Within six months, it was closed. Six Flags would try again the next year, installing the world's largest indoor Ferris wheel, but a Ferris wheel is not a roller coaster. And the Six Flags name was removed. The 1985 relaunch failed as well. From there, the park would only open, and only partially, for special occasions, such as school proms, until a permanent closure in the early 1990's.

The next several years were spent trying to figure out a Plan C. A 1994 proposal to turn the building into a casino was shot down in a voter referendum. A soccer complex was floated; a corporate training center; a game show arena (though what kind of game show would take place in Flint I have no idea). Eventually, in 1996, the University of Michigan-Flint expressed interest in the land.

The land. Not AutoWorld. The following year, the complex was imploded to make way for a parking lot.

Which is, perhaps, one final testament to Flint.

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