Rye Playland: Two Steps Forward, One Step Back

By Jon Craig

Citing the reality of politics and litigation, County Executive Rob Astorino rewrote his plan for Playland Amusement Park on Wednesday, June 11.

Astorino, a Republican running for governor, said the likelihood of lawsuits made management of the county-owned park by a non-profit group unmanageable, and therefore unlikely. The 86-year-old Art Deco landmark remains the largest government-owned amusement park in the United States.

The county and Sustainable Playland Inc. allowed an “asset management agreement” to lapse. It would have authorized SPI to manage an Amusement Zone run by Central Amusement International and a Field Zone run by Playland Sports. The county will instead retain control of the 280-acre park, at least through this year.

The county executive focused on plans to bolster an indoor rink called the Ice Casino, while diminishing dreams about an outdoor Field House and athletic fields. The new, outdoor fields were projected to boost Playland’s year-round revenue. But it drew the strongest opposition from residents in adjoining neighborhoods, prompting the City of Rye to threaten costly lawsuits. County officials conceded the non-profit picked two years ago to assume management of the county park, Sustainable Playland Inc., would not have been able to sustain costly legal fees. Astorino instead announced their agreement lapsed and that SPI would assume a secondary, fund-raising role in Playland’s future.

Playland lost $4.3 million last year, including capital debt. Attendance has fallen from 1 million visitors in 2005 to about 390,000 last summer.

Astorino continues to say the status quo is not enough for Playland. He has decided to hire Dan Biederman, president of Biederman Redevelopment Ventures and an affiliate of SPI who restored Bryant Park in New York City, to analyze park finances and operations. Astorino also announced a contract with American Skating Entertainment Centers to refurbish and operate the indoor Ice Casino skating rink. Its facilities include the Westchester Skating Academy in Elmsford.

The beginning of the end was signaled last month when Legislator Catherine Parker (D-Rye), a former Rye City council member, withdrew support for SPI after a committee meeting of county legislators on May 13. Parker said that while she appreciated the effort and time SPI members put into the plan to reinvent Playland, “too many answers to important questions are missing (and) I do not believe SPI’s current plan constitutes a viable and proper future for Playland. . . I would suggest this deal with SPI would be a bad one for Rye, and for county taxpayers.”

“Everything we have learned in the last four years has pointed to the same conclusion,” Astorino said. “The long-term financial viability of Playland depends on finding ways to make the park a year-round destination. These latest moves reaffirm our approach to not only improve the amusement park, but also to create complimentary attractions that extend the season beyond the summer. The math is simple. More days and more activities mean more dollars to defray costs to taxpayers and invest in preserving the traditions of Playland.”

The proposed agreement with American Skating calls for a 10-year contract, with an option to renew for an additional 10 years, paying the county $300,000 up front for the first year and $250,000 the second year, which will increase by 2 percent each year thereafter; and 25 percent of the gross revenue above $1.6 million annually.

In addition, American Skating will make $640,000 in capital improvements to the Ice Casino within the first 18 months of the contract. These capital improvements at American Skating’s expense will go largely toward refurbishing and modernizing the interior of the building with upgraded floors, lighting, electronics, bathrooms, locker rooms and guest services areas. These improvements are in addition to the approximately $4.5 million it will take to reopen the Ice Casino after damage caused by Hurricane Sandy.

Biederman’s role will be to focus on current operations and future opportunities. For $20,000-a-month, Biederman’s team will be in the park this summer looking for ways to improve revenue generation, cost control and visitor satisfaction. They will explore strategic options for the park such as the selection of a private operator, the addition of new attractions and activities and the development of revenue generating sponsorships. In the fall, Biederman is expected to present a list of recommendations on how best to enhance Playland’s long-term future.

“The riddle for solving Playland is how do you make the park relevant in 2014 and still preserve its traditions and charms,” Biederman said in a statement. “The answer is a combination of operational excellence, having enough money to invest in the future and a vision that positions your assets to excite patrons to want to visit the park for multiple reasons at multiple times throughout the year. The county executive has put that framework in place. My job is to help tie it together by advising on tactical and strategic matters that will range from improving the financial performance at the park as it now exists to broadening the scope of experiences at the park in the future.”

In its new role, SPI will perform three advocacy functions: act as Playland’s chief private fundraiser, similar to what Friends of Parks does for all of the county’s parks; safeguard the historic nature of the park and its traditions; and reach out to residents from around the county to promote their interests and voice their concerns with respect to the future of Playland.

The day-to-day operation of Playland will remain the responsibility of the county Park’s department this year. Whether that role changes won’t be decided until after the recommendations from the Biederman team are made. For the foreseeable future, the county will also deal directly with the park’s current vendors and partners, such as the Children’s Museum, and potential new operators.

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