Up to this point in Arlington’s modern history, the things that didn’t happen were all turned into great success stories as the city’s achievements continued to mount.
Then came the crippling failure of a venture that threatened to change everything. That the great majority of the city’s current population have never even heard of the beleaguered project, you already know that this thing that didn’t happen was not going to spell the end of the city’s continued ascension to prominence.
6. Arlington Stumbles
For a while, however, it looked like the city’s best days would be those disappearing in the rear view mirror.
In the same spring of 1972 that we celebrated the arrival of the Texas Rangers elevating the city to major league status, we also opened the gates to what was expected to be a companion to the startling success of Six Flags Over Texas, having just completed its first decade of operations.
The new attraction would provide visitors with the opportunity to experience sea life found in the major oceans of the world right in the middle of Texas. The publicly funded ten million dollar attraction would be known as Seven Seas and add to the reasons for visitors to put Arlington on their list of places to go for family fun, entertainment and one-of-a-kind experiences.
The financing for the venture and its operating costs were bound up in a city-owned subsidiary corporation with the renovated and renamed Arlington Stadium together with the baseball team’s radio and television broadcast rights, parking revenues, and concessions – all belonging to the city.
With the Rangers drawing about half the crowds of average major league team attendance numbers, and Seven Seas construction and operating costs far exceeding expectations, financial problems began to mount in the inaugural year for both entities.
In the second year, things only got worse. Already there would be restructuring of operating agreements for Seven Seas with new managers, new debt would be incurred, and problems would continue to mount as attendance in sufficient numbers to sustain the new attraction never materialized.
Controversy and confusion arose as the city took on more and more responsibility for running the sea life park while corporate entities the city had contracted with suffered financial collapse under the weight of their own economic difficulties unrelated to Seven Seas.
By the third year, the city had to close Seven Seas, borrow more money, and find new partners who would convert the park into a new theme, rename it, and reopen it as Hawaii Kai. That didn’t work any better. In fact, to the city’s surprise in the fall of 1976, the latest operator declared bankruptcy and the entire failed enterprise was turned back to the city and then permanently shut down.
News reports declared the city in crisis with no revenue source to pay the unexpected heavy debt resulting from Arlington’s now declared spectacular failure. All the animals were sold off and deterioration set in of the park’s once gleaming structures and features.
The magic that the city’s long-serving mayor had always seemed to produce for the town he loved with such passion seemed to have eluded him this time. No matter the details of the myriad things that went wrong with all the corporate and individual parties involved in Seven Seas, controversy over what occurred during the unfolding of the fiasco was focused more on him than anyone else.
In less than a year from the park’s closing, Tom Vandergriff resigned his post after 26 years of extraordinary leadership that transformed Arlington from a water stop into a national destination.
He would later tell me that he felt that the city would not be able to move forward with plans to recover from the Seven Seas collapse as long as the focus remained on him. He also would lament that he felt he would be remembered only for the sea life park debacle.
Tom may have been right about the first of these concerns – we will never know. But, he was unnecessarily worried about the second. The city would recover largely as a result of the momentum he had built in the two and a half decades of his leadership.
To raise some immediate cash to address the Seven Seas debt payments looming large over the city, new Mayor S. J. Stovall negotiated the sale of the city’s valuable Texas Rangers broadcast rights to the owners of the team. The deal included an option for the owners to acquire Arlington Stadium and the surrounding prime real estate. An option they would later exercise.
Entrance to the Seven Seas
Sea Life Park 1972
Such a deal would portend problems in the future when Dallas would attempt to steal the Rangers from Arlington, but the money helped ease the immediate crisis.
Next, the city would proceed to put together a collaboration with the Sheraton Hotel Corporation where public funds, approved by voters in a bond election, would build a new convention center on the Seven Seas property and connect it to a new luxury hotel that would incorporate a couple of the sea life park’s remaining usable facilities.
The convention center would bring in a new revenue stream, the hotel would produce new tax dollars from the property moving back into private hands along with the lucrative room tax flowing in from visitors. The city’s expansion would continue to accelerate, a major new shopping mall would soon be planned that would pump sales tax dollars into the city treasury and the city’s recovery was basically assured by its continued robust growth and focus on economic development.
At the end of the Seven Seas story, the thing that didn’t happen was that Arlington didn’t lose its well-deserved reputation as the innovative, can-do city. What actually disappeared in the rear view mirror was the image of a failed sea life park along with the notion that Arlington had stubbed its toe and its glory days were over. In fact, a future brighter than ever was already rising on the horizon.