“Fun stuff! Scary stuff! Indescribable stuff!” A 1984 TV advertisement for Six Flags Autoworld may as well have been describing the decisions that went into spending $70 million – half of which was public money – on building “the largest enclosed theme park in the world” in Flint, Michigan.
AutoWorld was an attempt to leverage Flint’s history as one of the most important cities in the history of the American auto industry into creating an attraction that would create jobs and lure visitors to the city after that auto industry had largely left. It was, as is common for so many giant economic development boondoggles, the result of well-intentioned leaders from business, government and nonprofits coming together with the help of expensive consultants to create a comprehensive master plan that would go on to be an utter failure.
According to one local foundation leader, General Motors Chairman Roger Smith — who would soon be made infamous by Flint filmmaker Michael Moore in “Roger & Me” — knew AutoWorld was destined to fail. “It’s not going to work. What can I do to stop it?” Smith reportedly asked Charles Stewart Mott Foundation President William S. White. (The Mott Foundation itself would eventually lose $50 million on AutoWorld.) But AutoWorld had “a life of its own,” according to White, and nobody was willing to be the one who stood up and questioned the grand plan.
At its opening on July 4, 1985 Michigan Governor Jim Blanchard hailed Six Flags AutoWorld as “the rebirth of the great city of Flint.” Just six months later, AutoWorld closed its doors, victim of dramatically lower attendance than predicted. Its budget had been based on a minimum of 600,000 attendees in the first year, but only 460,000 people came through the doors. It turns out that not enough people wanted to pay to attend an automotive-themed indoor theme park in Flint, indoor Ferris wheel or not.
Six Flags quickly ended its relationship, but AutoWorld would go on to occasionally reopen at lower ticket prices and reshuffled attractions over the next few years. By 1988, it was owned by Flint’s Downtown Development Authority and the Mott Foundation was donating $500,000 per year in maintenance costs to keep it ready for a potential buyer who might want to reopen the gates. In 1991, AutoWorld officially gave up hope of a comeback and in 1997, the building was imploded. The land was transferred to the University of Michigan for an expansion of its Flint campus, and today is the site of an Early Childhood Development Center.
AutoWorld’s utter failure meant investors — including Flint’s taxpayers — paid a high price. To support the construction of AutoWorld, the City of Flint issued $7.5 million in bonds and took out a $4.5 million loan from the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development against future federal Community Development Block Grant funding. When the city defaulted on the loan in 1987, having counted on the revenues from AutoWorld to help it make loan payments, HUD’s grants to nonprofits across the city were reduced until the loan amount was made good.
To this day, AutoWorld remains an object lesson that well-funded economic development plans that have the buy-in of well-intentioned business, government and nonprofit leadership can still go horribly, catastrophically wrong.