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South Jersey investor group plans to bid at auction with the hope of restoring Clementon Park

“I’m convinced this can still be a great park if it’s run right,” said investor Melvin Brown.

Melvin Brown Jr., 31, of Sicklerville, a leader of Fresh Development LLC, in front of Clementon Park and Splash World. Brown hopes to purchase the property in a auction with the goal to keep the amusement park and make into a resort.
Melvin Brown Jr., 31, of Sicklerville, a leader of Fresh Development LLC, in front of Clementon Park and Splash World. Brown hopes to purchase the property in a auction with the goal to keep the amusement park and make into a resort.Read moreTYGER WILLIAMS / STAFF PHOTOGRAPHER

For 114 years, it has rested like some fairy-tale village alongside a spring-fed lake in the dark South Jersey pines. But if Clementon Park and Splash World is going to survive into its 115th, it might need a little magic.

The venerable 52-acre amusement park will be sold at auction March 23, 1½ years after it was abruptly shut down. And depending on the vision of its new owner, a corporate park or a housing development might soon replace the rides and water attractions that have delighted generations.

How much interest there is in the park, especially amid the muddied financial outlook created by the COVID-19 pandemic, remains a mystery. The auctioneers, Capital Recovery Group, did not respond to requests to identify the names and number of potential buyers. But at least one has come forward, a group of African American investors who intend to maintain the mission of a place that began its existence in 1907 as Clementon Lake Park.

“I’m convinced this can still be a great park if it’s run right,” said Melvin Brown, 31, a native of nearby Pine Hill. “The old management just didn’t do what they needed to keep the park alive. They didn’t reinvest any money.”

When Brown and others from Fresh Development LLC recently toured the site, they were told that at least six other potential purchasers had visited. Fresh Development is in the process of raising $7 million and, if its bid is successful, plans to reopen Clementon Park in time for the summer season.

“I manage stock assets for a lot of people,” Brown said, “and we’re always looking for opportunities. So when we saw that this property would be available, we decided to try and raise the necessary capital.”

This would be the initial venture for the investment entity Brown created in August in response to the social upheaval that followed the death of George Floyd. Its members, he said, include doctors, other professionals, a network of truckers, and several socially minded individuals.

“Our major goal,” he said, “is to try to find solutions to close the wealth gap” among the races.

In a 2019 conversation with park ownership, Brown was informed that the asking price would be $2.5 million to $3 million. That same year the property — about 18 miles from Center City on Berlin Road in Camden County — was assessed at $4.5 million.

Whatever it sells for at the auction, Clementon Park, whose previous owners, Oklahoma-based Premier Parks, closed it in September 2019, will require an additional investment in repairs and renovations — “a few million dollars,” Brown estimated.

The impact of COVID has made Clementon’s sale more challenging. According to the website Linchpin, which helps various industries analyze their marketing needs, revenue for the global amusement-park business is expected to reach $71.6 billion in 2021, from $73.5 million in 2019.

Clementon was one of hundreds of parks that more than a century ago were built at the end of urban trolley lines. But in 2021, unable to compete with larger destination parks such as those operated by Disney and Comcast’s Universal division, only a few dozen remain. A few survivors have found a successful formula, combining nostalgia-inducing traditional rides such as wooden roller-coasters. Pre-COVID, for example, Knoebels had been attracting 1.5 million visitors annually to its remote location in Elysburg, Pa.

In addition to its water park attractions, Clementon features a wooden roller coaster with a 105-foot vertical drop plus a giant Ferris wheel, safari train, race-car ride, and a score of other rides. That’s a combination that, many of these parks have discovered, is more appealing to older customers.

“A lot of these places like Clementon are finding it difficult to attract a younger demographic,” said Bill Ross, Linchpin’s founder. “Younger people want a more immersive experience. They want tie-ins with brands like Marvel or Harry Potter. They want breakfast with characters, virtual reality-type stuff.”

Still, if Clementon can be reopened in time for the summer and COVID-related restrictions are lifted, Brown projects that it could attract as many as 170,000 visitors and $7.5 million in revenue.

“We firmly believe we can get it open by then,” Brown said. “I’m not suggesting we’ll be fully up and running because you’ve got to get the proper insurance and licensing from the state. But if we get the proper management and investment dollars into the place, we think it can be very successful.”

A Norfolk State graduate, Brown also is the CEO of Fresh Media Group, an enterprise that has helped with branding for such companies as MGM Resorts, T-Mobile and Toshiba. In 2013, he was invited to the White House as part of an Obama administration initiative to involve more people of color in technology.

In January, a judge appointed Howard Samuels and Rally Capital Advisers as receivers for the Clementon property, which is 13 miles southeast of Camden. Capital Recovery Group was then brought in to sell it piecemeal or in its entirety.

In addition to the rides and water slides, the park includes a 25-acre lake, a dam, and a six-bedroom historical house. It also has a liquor license.

Fresh Development also would like to construct a hotel on the site and repurpose Clementon into a weekend-destination resort, one it hopes will benefit from an expected post-COVID demand for outdoor entertainment.

“We felt like to do that we were going to need some accommodations, so we think a hotel makes sense,” Brown said.

According to Brown, his interest in Clementon, one of the oldest continuously operated parks in the U.S., began when he spent a high school summer operating one of its rides.

“It was such a great job for a kid like me,” he said, “and now I’m at a place where I’m capable of bringing the right resources in and bringing out the best in this park.”