Coney Island businesses plan their comeback

A half covered picnic table on Coney Island's A half covered picnic table on Coney Island's beach the day after superstorm Sandy hit New York City. (Oct. 30, 2012) Photo Credit: Anthony Lanzilote

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Many of Coney Island's businesses and attractions plan to be open by the spring, but a full recovery of the popular seaside amusement area from superstorm Sandy's wallop may take longer to complete.

Some changes, like fewer bumper cars at Deno's Wonder Wheel Amusement Park, would go largely unnoticed. Others, like the potential scrubbing of the Mermaid Parade in June, could disappoint half a million visitors and cost area businesses one of the most profitable days of the year.

Amusement operators are now spending millions to repair, restore and replace equipment swamped by a storm surge as high as 14 feet. Many attraction operators have committed to opening March 24 -- Palm Sunday -- said Dennis Vourderis, board chair for the Alliance for Coney Island and who co-owns Deno's with his brother Steve.

"We are moving forward," Vourderis said. "It's having faith in Coney Island because it's a magical place."

Some attractions may not come back as quickly, he said. The New York Aquarium, for example, has yet to set a reopening date.

"I understand financial constraints, but the general consensus is that Coney Island will open on time in March," he said.

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'Aggressive' repair schedule

More than 10 million people visited Coney Island Beach between Memorial and Labor days last year, according to the city parks department.

During the 2012 season, which ended just before Sandy struck, 759,000 visitors flocked to family-oriented Luna Park and the thrill-ride Scream Zone, and 2.6 million rides were taken, said Ben Branham, a spokesman for the city Department of Economic Development.

The two parks sustained heavy electrical and equipment damages, while the landmark Cyclone roller coaster weathered the Oct. 29 storm, said Nicole Purmal, spokeswoman for Central Amusement International, which operates them.

"No matter what, there's a deep financial gulp that we have to take right now," she said. About 400 employees work during the season at the three properties.

Purmal would not give an estimate of Central Amusement's storm damages, but said the company is working with its insurer. Engineers from Italy-based ride manufacturer Zamperla arrived from Europe last month to assess the equipment, she said.

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"We've put an aggressive schedule together for repair and recovery," Purmal said. "Our goal is to try to get everything operational by Palm Sunday (March 24)."

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The boardwalk is open, but the Steeplechase Pier remains shut for repairs. Another Coney Island cornerstone, Nathan's Famous, will be back by March or April, said Wayne Norbitz, president and chief operating officer. "No one wants to reopen more than me," he said.

Nathan's has two Coney Island venues -- the flagship restaurant on Surf Avenue, and a boardwalk outpost, drawing more than a million visitors a year. The flagship was under more than 5 feet of water and must replace all its electrical and cooking equipment, sales registers and a portion of the original counter from 1916.

But the annual July Fourth hot dog eating contest will "absolutely" take place, he said -- "I'd probably get shot otherwise."

 

Hope to reopen mainstays

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Less certain for 2013 is the annual Mermaid Parade in June. It is run by the nonprofit Coney Island USA, which houses the Coney Island Museum and a live theater, on West 12th Street, and plans to reopen Memorial Day after rebuilding from $450,000 in damage.

"We want to do our 31st Annual Mermaid Parade, but I could see the logic of taking the year off and not overwhelming our staff and budget," said Coney Island USA'S executive artistic director, Dick Zigun. It costs more than $100,000 to stage and is usually largely sponsored by area businesses.

June will see the return of the Brooklyn Cyclones. Their stadium, MCU Park, offices, locker rooms and dugouts were flooded, and a decision will be made by spring whether the playing field sod needs to be completely replaced before the 2013 season begins, spokesman Billy Harner said.

General manager Steve Cohen said the staff will work from temporary offices outside the stadium while repairs are made.

Deno's aims to reopen March 24, said Steve Vourderis, the maintenance manager, and "so far we're on schedule." The iconic 1920 Wonder Wheel Ferris wheel survived Sandy. Other attractions, including the Spook-A-Rama ride, must be rebuilt.

Earlier this month, his team began reassembling the Thunderbolt ride, whose cars were submerged in toxic stormwater and required emergency power washing.

"We can't store the ride unless we know it will work in the spring, so we have to set it back up to be tested," Steve Vourderis said.

Another favorite, the 93-year-old Grandma's Predictions fortune teller, was shipped upstate for expert restoration after Sandy swamped storage areas where vintage objects were kept. Of 25 damaged bumper cars, 20 will be replaced at a total cost of $110,000.

Another area mainstay, Eldorado Auto Skooter and Arcade, is assessing $200,000 in damages as owner Gordon Lee discusses lease renewal with landlord Thor Equities. Thor chief executive Joseph Sitt said, "They'll be back" next season, but did not elaborate on current talks.

Visitors will have both familiar and new places to eat. The landmark Gargiulo's Restaurant reopened Dec. 1 after sustaining more than $2 million in damage, according to co-owner Nino Russo.

An Applebee's is planned in 12,000-square-foot space at 1217 Surf Ave. in May, said Zane Tankel, who owns dozens of franchises in that chain.

Johnny Rockets, the 1950s diner theme chain at 1223 Surf Ave., is planning in 2014 to open a $1.5 million, 6,000-square-foot restaurant next door, with an additional 2,000 square feet for expansion. The owner, Rahman Hashimi, is upbeat about Coney's future. "I might do another brand, as yet undecided, something related to a food and drink," he said.

A newcomer, Tom's Restaurant, opened on the boardwalk in September as a year-round venue and was a meeting spot for Sandy-related assistance groups.

Owner Jimmy Kokotas said it was a "godsend" that the venue, a $1 million investment, had only about $8,000 in damage. He plans to stay open daily from 8 a.m. to 5 p.m. through the winter and extend hours in the spring. Until then, Kokotas said, he will be satisfied just to pay his workers and electric bill.

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