Four years ago, candidate Robert Astorino stood in front of Playland Amusement Park in Rye and said it needed a colossal overhaul. The only government-operated amusement park in the country was hemorrhaging millions of dollars from declining attendance, and this was far too much for taxpayers to subsidize, he said.
That day was the beginning of a ride that has had its share of twists, turns and dips.
Now, as he seeks a second term, Astorino has a real plan to save the struggling landmark beautifully perched on Long Island Sound -- and it involves a talented group of local residents. Astorino announced an agreement last week with Sustainable Playland, a not-for-profit organization that proposes to invest millions in the park, run its day-to-day operations and pay Westchester a yearly fee, with no financial risk to the county.
That means the Dragon Coaster, Derby Racer and classic Art Deco buildings won't be going anywhere.
The 10-year agreement looks promising: Sustainable Playland would invest $34 million into capital improvements, including a new fieldhouse for indoor soccer and lacrosse, new restaurants, and a great lawn. It would cut a $4-million check to the county upfront and pay $1.2 million a year toward repaying $35 million of the park's debt.
Playland’s fortress-like fencing -- installed a few years ago -- would come down, and the entrance fee would go away, making it a more inviting public space. Sustainable Playland is also interested in including Westchester Children's Museum, a not-for-profit willing to invest millions to renovate the historic bathhouse for its new home. The museum, which has been in limbo, deserves to be part of the final product.
The new restaurants, museum and other attractions would make Playland a year-round attraction, instead of the lackluster seasonal destination it is now. In its new incarnation, it could be ready for 2014. Playland opens this year on May 11.
Playland's problems are well-documented. The park, built in 1928 and once called the “memory maker” by former County Executive Andrew Spano, hasn't been a moneymaker -- it's losing $3 million to $5 million a year, according to Astorino. Attendance, more than 1 million a year less than a decade ago, hovered around 430,000 last year.
Clearly Playland needs help.
The agreement is headed to the Board of Legislators. That's where this exciting opportunity could be blown to smithereens, buried in committee or — dare we say it? — actually improved.
The 17-member county board, made up of a majority of Democrats, must review the details and scope of this agreement. But with two of those Democrats actively seeking the county executive's job and others already openly skeptical, it's imperative that the board doesn't let this become an election-year volleyball.
The Sustainable Playland group appears to have the resources to pull off the park's reinvention. It was selected over more than a dozen other interested groups, including for-profit Legoland. Members of this operation, many of whom live in Westchester County, have helped turn around Bryant Park and Herald Square Park in New York City and the City of Norwalk’s happening downtown in Connecticut.
The county has until Jan. 1, 2014, to approve the deal. Let’s hope this ride is more like the Tunnel of Love than the Whip.