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EXCLUSIVE: State recommends historic status for Expo Square Skyride after FOX23 Investigations

OKLAHOMA CITY, Okla. — FOX23 has confirmed the State of Oklahoma’s Historic Preservation Office issued a preliminary opinion Friday recommending the historic Skyride at Tulsa’s Expo Square be considered for placement on the National Register of Historic Places (NRHP).

FOX23 has learned the opinion was hand-delivered to Expo Square officials Wednesday morning.

It comes after an exclusive series of FOX23 Investigations revealed officials at Expo Square and Tulsa County had been quietly planning to demolish the ride for years.

The office issued the opinion Friday afternoon after a several-weeks-long investigation into its eligibility at the request of a group of citizens.

FOX23 has confirmed that group of citizens is being led by the founder of TulsaSkyride.org, a website advocating for the ride’s preservation.

The opinion indicates the office believes, at this time, based on evidence presented by that group, the ride would be worthy of applying for and getting national historic protection.

Matthew Pearce, a historic preservation specialist at the Oklahoma State Historic Preservation Office, authored Friday’s preliminary opinion.

He told FOX23 that right now it is no more than an opinion. He says in order for the ride to be officially placed on the NRHP, the group seeking its protection will have to go through another applications, this time with the federal government. He said that can often take several months, possibly up to a year.

Pearce said the State Historic Preservation Office will assist in that process.

He also said the opinion could allow the ride to immediately become eligible for certain grants to help maintain it even without official NRHP status.

The ride, built in 1965 by a Swiss company, Von Roll, was originally operated as part of the state fairgrounds at Expo Square. Several years later, it was purchased by Bell’s Amusement Park, which operated it for decades until the fairgrounds abruptly ended the lease and the park closed in 2006. At that point, Bell’s sold the ride back to Expo Square, which operated it for 11 days each year at the Tulsa State Fair. The last time the ride operated was at 2019′s fair.

As of August 2022, the ride is one of only 10 Von Roll Skyrides still standing and in the U.S., and the only one in Oklahoma or surrounding states. Of the 10 remaining in the U.S., the Tulsa ride is one of only three owned by a public entity.

The ride cannot be disassembled and rebuilt at a different location due to modern code requirements.

Expo Square did not announce its plans to auction and demolish the ride until after FOX23 began asking questions this past May. Records obtained by FOX23 revealed Expo Square had been planning to demolish it since at least 2019.

In FOX23′s investigations into Expo Square’s plans to demolish the ride, officials said the ride was expensive to maintain and not profitable when it ran.

Those FOX23 investigations also revealed — Expo Square had spent nearly $2 million public money in upgrades to the ride in recent years.

Expo Square is a public trust funded, maintained and overseen by the Tulsa County Public Facilities Authority. The elected members of the Tulsa County Board of County Commissioners make up the authority.

Commissioners Stan Sallee, Karen Keith and now-former Commissioner Ron Peters were the members of the authority in the years leading up to May’s demolition announcement. FOX23 reached out to them and Expo Square CEO Mark Andrus during our previous investigations but did not hear back.

In July, Expo Square’s Chief Operating Officer Amanda Blair told FOX23 Expo Square never attempted to seek historic preservation for the ride before determining it would need to be torn down.

At the time, Blair told FOX23 the ride would not be demolished before the end of 2022.

FOX23 is reached out to Expo Square concerning the preliminary opinion.

Amanda Blair, Chief Operating Officer of the Tulsa County Public Facilities Authority has issued a statement:

TCPFA received notice via press release on August 17, 2022, from Scott Martin, that a request has been submitted to the Oklahoma State Historic Preservation Office regarding the Tulsa Sky Ride’s eligibility for the National Register of Historic Places. In a full effort to provide information, the Tulsa State Fair is still considering all options on how to move forward. As previously stated, the ride will be listed on public auction, with an anticipated timeline of mid-October. Once this occurs the responses will be evaluated, and a decision will be made in the best interest of Expo Square and the Tulsa State Fair.

This is a developing story. FOX23 is speaking to the members of the group who sought the opinion from the state and will bring their full story soon.

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