FOX23 Investigation finds Expo Square planned to tear down Skyride for years without announcing

TULSA, Okla. — FOX23 uncovered public records indicating Expo Square officials had decided to tear down its historic Skyride ride several years ago, but didn’t announce it publicly until we started asking questions.

FOX23 reported in May that Tulsa County taxpayers like Scotty Martin are fed up.

“It makes my blood boil,” Martin told FOX23.

He said he’s fed up that Expo Square plans to tear down its historic Skyride.

“It’s unbelievable that you’re just gonna give up on it,” he said.

And, he’s fed up that financial records FOX23 previously uncovered show Expo Square had recently spent nearly $2 million in public dollars modernizing the ride.

“It’s essentially brand new,” he said.

Most of all, Martin is upset because he says he thinks Expo Square had no plans to tell taxpayers what had already been decided until FOX23 started asking questions.

On May 12, FOX23 found an anonymous blog post claiming to have inside information that the Skyride was in danger of being torn down.

FOX23 reached out to Expo Square Chief Operating Officer and spokesperson Amanda Blair that afternoon to see if it was true.

The next morning, Blair sent FOX23 a statement announcing “The Skyride will no longer operate.” The statement also said, “Expo Square has pursued demo preparations in 2022.” It adds the ride will be “put for sale at the county surplus auction.”

The statement said in 2015, Expo Square contracted a company, DMC-Tulsa, to operate the ride. But after the 2019 Tulsa State Fair, “DMC officially terminated the agreement … due to the lack of revenue produced.”

A clause, in that agreement obtained by FOX23, allowed DMC or the county to back out of the contract if the ride was “no longer economically viable.”

Records FOX23 obtained show ridership had declined year-over-year from the 2018 to 2019 Tulsa State Fair.

But taxpayers like Martin wanted to know when the decision was made to tear down the historic ride, who made it, and if there had been any efforts to preserve it.

“Transparency is incredibly important right now,” Martin said.

FOX23 started doing some digging through public records, to see if it had been discussed in any public meetings. The Tulsa County Public Facilities Authority oversees Expo Square. Expo Square is a public trust funded by the county. County Commissioners make up the authority.

But we hit a road block. Expo Square normally posts TCFPA meeting minutes to its website, but stopped doing that after February 2021. Expo Square officials told FOX23 they stopped posting TCPFA minutes online because of COVID-related staff reductions. But they continued to post meeting agendas.

So FOX23 requested meeting minutes and emails between officials about the Skyride. In an April 2021 email FOX23 obtained from Expo Square’s CEO Mark Andrus to then-Tulsa County Commissioner Ron Peters, Andrus lists “Skyride removal” on a “list of 20+ projects” he said Expo Square had to do.

To find out more details, FOX23 asked all the officials involved for an on-camera interview. That included Expo Square CEO Mark Andrus, Expo Square COO Amanda Blair, Tulsa County Commissioners Karen Keith and Stan Sallee, former Tulsa County Commissioner Ron Peters and former Tulsa County spokesperson Jarrel Wade. Blair was the only one who responded and agreed to do an interview.

In an exclusive interview, Blair told FOX23 Expo Square officials have been talking about what to do with the Skyride since 2019 when it last ran.

But by the next time the fair was held, in 2021, there had still been no announcement that the Skyride would not be running anymore.

FOX23 asked Blair, “Were there plans to demolish it before that 2021 fair?”

“There’s always conversation, absolutely,” Blair said. “We have costs that are associated with the demolition as well, so it’s not something that is easily taken down.”

Emails show after DMC backed out of its agreement, then County Commissioner Ron Peters expressed confusion, even though he had signed it.

He told Andrus in a 2019 email obtained by FOX23, “I thought we sold it to him.”

Peters was referring to DMC’s owner.

In a response, Andrus told Peters they would “have the first meeting” the next Friday to “discuss options.”

“I can’t speak for commissioners,” Blair said. “TCPFA management did do the proper thing and presented the contract to the board.”

FOX23 reported in May that financial records we obtained show Expo Square spent near $2 Million in public funds to upgrade and enhance the ride in recent years, including thousands in public dollars to remove signs from the skyride buildings after the 2019 fair. Signs that were just put up a year earlier.

FOX23 also asked Blair, “Do you think that’s a good use of public money?”

“So, it is funds that were utilized, however we do still have the signs,” Blair said. “But you’re going to have to — on an annual basis — spend hundreds of thousands of dollars to make sure that the grips are x-rayed, that the safety’s there. We don’t want to continue spending money whenever it’s losing money.”

Records FOX23 obtained also show that in August 2021, Expo Square asked Tulsa County for $300 Thousand in American Rescue Plan funds for the demolition of the Skyride. But Blair says as far as she knows, the county didn’t give Expo Square the money for that.

We asked Blair, “Do you think demolition of a ride is an appropriate use of pandemic recovery funds?”

“Again … that’s not my decision,” Blair said. “I think there’s qualifications. We just have the list prepared.”

FOX23 obtained a series of emails sent in the hours immediately following our first questions to officials about the rumors the ride was in imminent danger of demolition.

In a May 12 email, then-Tulsa County spokesperson Jarrel Wade emailed county commissioners that he would be “coordinating with Mark Andrus and his team and meeting with them tomorrow morning to learn where this came from.”

Then Wade wrote he would tell news media that to his knowledge, “there has been no recent decision or action by the Tulsa County Commissioners and the TCPFA in regard to the Skyride.”

The next morning, on May 13, Wade said in an email, “The plan going forward is to offer the Skyride for sale … A sale has a potential to save expo money and preserve the ride … a win/win … if no bids come in, Expo should be able to keep their previous schedule.”

FOX23 asked Blair what she thought Wade meant by “previous schedule.”

“The Skyride demolition has been on our list since 2019,” Blair said.

FOX23 also asked “When did the aspect of auctioning it come about?”

“I’m not certain when it specifically came about,” Blair said.

We asked why the public wasn’t notified about the plans about the Skyride until May.

“It’s definitely not something that was not talked about publicly,” Blair said. “It’s been discussed in public meetings as well.”

But FOX23 looked through TCPFA meeting minutes and records but couldn’t find any specific mention of the plan to demolish or auction off the ride.

We asked Blair, “How come it took until media started asking questions for that to happen?”

“I don’t have a specific answer for that,” Blair said.

We asked her if Expo Square considered asking for historic protection for the ride. She told us they never did.

We also asked when the ride would go up for auction. Blair said she’s not sure but will let us know. She said even if no one bids on the ride at the public auction, Expo Square has no intentions to operate it at this fall’s fair.

Blair also said it’s her understanding that the ride will not be demolished before the end of 2022 as of right now.