The Fury at Carowinds gets a big national nod

Roller coaster riders enjoy their experience on Carowinds' new Fury 325, the world tallest and fastest giga coaster.
Roller coaster riders enjoy their experience on Carowinds' new Fury 325, the world tallest and fastest giga coaster. dtfoster@charlotteobserver.com

The new Fury 325 coaster at Carowinds is fast, reaching 95 miles per hour and dropping 32 stories in a three-minute, lip-chapping sprint.

The Fury is expensive. It cost an estimated $30 million to build, not including some taxpayer help with the land it sits on. (More on that later.)

The Fury also is hot. It’s the buzz of teens across the Charlotte region, and now its getting noticed across the country. On Sunday, the ride was featured as Exhibit No. 1 in a Wall Street Journal report on a new golden age of roller coasters.

“It’s a postrecession renaissance, with more roller coasters (173) built globally in 2014 than any year on record,” said the Journal, which noted that architects compare the Fury to “revamped muscle cars coming out of Detroit.”

That’s good for the bottom line at Carowinds, which is why parent company Cedar Fair built the coaster. Businesses like to make money, and one way to do that is to grow and serve more customers.

Businesses also like to get free stuff, which is why Cedar Fair asked Charlotte and Mecklenburg County in 2013 for more than $900,000 in property tax breaks for an expansion that included its new coaster.

Those incentives – called business investment grants – are a common tool to attract companies or keep them in Charlotte and Mecklenburg. The tax breaks also encourage businesses to expand, which is why the city and county said yes to Cedar Fair. Those who supported the decision can point to the buzz surrounding the Fury as evidence it was the right call.

We didn’t think so. We still don’t.

It’s not that we don’t think the Fury is cool, in an eye-watering sort of way. It’s that Cedar Fair was going to build the coaster at Carowinds regardless of whether it got a tax break to do so.

City officials suggested otherwise then, pointing to Cedar Fair considering another park in Virginia for expansion. But two years before, Cedar Fair had purchased 61 acres adjoining Carowinds. They bought that land to build on. They wanted to grow.

All of which shows how tricky the tax breaks game can be. There are no smart absolutes with incentives. Eliminate them and you’ll lose both companies you have and companies you want. But see them as a recruitment cure-all, and you’re likely neglecting the core things – education, infrastructure – that attract the kind of elite companies you need.

One other problem with giving incentives too freely: There’s a finite amount of money for handouts. Officials at a Charlotte Chamber breakfast this morning complained that a reduction in state incentives money is making it harder for them to close projects with companies here. In Raleigh, the debate over incentives is often philosophical, but there are bottom line undertones, as well.

Money remains tight; it should be spent smartly. Incentives are one tool that cities and states each should use, but if you’re going to give a handout to companies – even for expansion that turned out to be both cool and hot – make sure you actually need to.

Peter St. Onge