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Photo: Zach Teris

The people of Clementon were holding out hope, but as the auction approached, it began to waver. For more than a century, Clementon Park was a major part of summer in South Jersey. But after a recent bankruptcy, the amusement park closed its gates, seemingly for the last time. In March, the land and everything on it – rides, games, picnic pavilions and more – went on the auction block. The park was nearly sold in pieces, but an improbable hero, Chicago businessman Gene Staples, appeared at the 11th hour to give it a new lease on life.

In the 18th century, as Camden’s plants and factories hummed, and the city’s population rose, Clementon became a popular resort destination. It had cool lakes and shady stands of trees that drew people out of the city on the weekends. Many came to swim in Clementon Lake, owned by a Civil War veteran named Theodore B. Gibbs.

Gibbs built a picnic area along the lakeside, then gradually began adding other attractions and amusements. In 1907, the trolley lines from Camden were extended to the front gate, and Clementon Lake Park was officially established.

Over 114 years, it had 4 owners and tens of millions of visitors, added modern rides and water slides and played host to political rallies, boxing exhibitions and big cat shows. It survived 2 world wars and 20 presidents.

But near the end of the 2019 season, the park’s corporate owner defaulted on the mortgage and shut down. Earlier this year it was announced that the park would be auctioned off in pieces.

Locals speculated that the real estate, near the center of Camden County and just down the street from some of the nation’s top golf courses, might be more valuable than the park itself. There was a good chance the rides would be razed to build a shopping center or townhouse community.

A few days before the auction, people filed through the park’s gates for the first time in over a year. But they weren’t there to ride the Ferris wheel.

“We own a summer camp, so we go to a lot of auctions. This one’s a little unusual, but we always need trash cans, picnic tables, things like that,” says Jessica Petkov. She and her husband, Mike, live in South Jersey and run a large overnight camp in Chester County, Pa. They examined the park’s storage and food preparation areas, discussing what they might want to bid on. “We always do tons of activities with prizes and things like that, so some of that could be useful,” Petkov says. “It’s always good to repurpose when you can.”

In addition to contractors, church groups and others, there were amusement park owners from Ocean City, Md., Fort Worth, Tx., and western New York state. It seemed likely that more than 100 years of South Jersey history would be scattered across the country.

Instead, the virtual auction ended in an upset. With a $2.3 million bid, Gene Staples purchased the park and quickly announced plans to reopen.

Photos: Clementon Historic Commission

 

Staples has always considered himself to be an amusement park “enthusiast.” He recalls fond child­hood memories of visiting parks in the Midwest with his parents and grandparents. Since his 4 children were small, he’s taken them on family trips to play the carnival games and ride rollercoasters.

“I’m just somebody who appreciates, like so many of us did growing up, these special places,” he says.

In 2020, just after the start of the pandemic, Staples, a real estate developer, made a bit of an impulse buy. He purchased Indiana Beach, another historic amusement park on a lake 2 hours outside Chicago, from struggling corporate owners.

Once he was handed the keys to Indiana Beach, Staples’ first order of business was to bring back some of those fond childhood memories. He went looking for classic rides, dealing with brokers all over the country, including a couple of guys who happen to be based in South Jersey.

When the auction of Clementon Park was announced, one of those brokers called Staples and said, “You really ought to come take a look at this.”

So he did, and Staples says the moment he walked in it was “love at first sight.” He was able to easily see past the grime and neglect, and he instantly believed Clementon Park and its waterpark, Splash World, could be restored to their former glory.

“I came out expecting one thing. I got there and was completely wowed,” he says. “Right away I saw the potential in bringing it back.”

He set an ambitious goal. The auction was held at the end of March, and Staples pledged that Clementon Park would be open for business by Memorial Day weekend, just 2 months later.

Photo: Zach Teris

“I came out expecting one thing. I got there and was completely wowed. Right away I saw the potential in bringing it back.”

 

“We started on day 1 bringing back some of the key personnel and getting back people who wanted to work,” Staples says. “We brought in a small army of people to do all the work from a year of neglect, and that’s been our focus. We’ve just been working diligently on cleanup. That’s what the park needed more than anything else.”

The waterpark’s pools have been drained, Staples adds, and their concrete scrubbed, acid washed and repainted. The water slides and other rides have gotten a deep clean, and he and his team are tackling a long to-do list.

“We’re getting bids on roofing, carpentry, painting, electrical upgrades,” he says. “We’ve had to order ride parts – a lot of the rides have annual requirements for part replacement – and send some things out for repairs.”

Long term, Staples has big plans for Clementon Park. He hopes to bring in classic rides and restore the sense of nostalgia for generations of South Jersey visitors. He also sees the park hosting festivals, live music performances and other special events.

For now, he just wants people to be able to see the promise Clementon Park holds.

“We’re hoping people will notice some of the differences we were already able to accomplish: fresh paint, repairs to infrastructure and buildings – the spit and polish. That was all missing before.”

Petkov, who lives just down the road in Cherry Hill, had never been to the park before the pre-auction inspection day. “We have 2 kids, and we never came here,” she says. “When we were driving in, I was kind of shocked, like wow, this is really close to our house!”

Staples hopes that once locals see the park up and running just the way it was in their fondest memories, people from across South Jersey – like the Petkovs – will come to see it for themselves.

“As we get through the summer, we’ll start announcing things we have planned,” Staples says. He anticipates plenty of celebrations, and plenty of things to celebrate. And while it’s too soon to say whether the park will be profitable in this first year, that’s not necessarily what’s most important anyway.

“We didn’t invest in this to lose money, but I always put it out there that we’re not in it to make millions either,” Staples says. “We’re looking to preserve a park, build something multigenerational, and keep a piece of Americana alive.”

 


We’re giving 2 lucky winners 2 passes to Clementon park – enter here!

July 2021
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