As Playland season nears end, lawmakers look to its future

Playland Park celebrates the opening of its new Playland Park celebrates the opening of its new season in Rye. (May 12, 2012) Photo Credit: John Meore

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New Yorkers enjoying a final blast of summertime fun at Rye Playland Monday said they couldn't imagine not having the park around.

"There's nothing like it in the New York area," said Melody Knowles, 39, of Mount Vernon, who on Monday took her 5-year-old son Anthony to Playland for the third time this season. The park closes for the season next weekend.

Big changes may be in the works for the historic site as Westchester County officials are reviewing proposals to renovate 100 acres of the sprawling, 280-acre park off Long Island Sound.

"I hope whatever they decide, it will keep the park open," Knowles said.

Year-end revenue figures haven't been released yet, but officials have said Playland is bleeding money at a rate of nearly $3 million to $5 million a year because of labor costs, debt obligations and a drop in attendance, estimated at 80,000 patrons in 2011.

Westchester owes $30 million on debt service for capital projects in the park, which will cost taxpayers about $3 million this year, according to county figures.

Westchester County Executive Rob Astorino has pledged to come up with a better business model for the park to lessen the burden on county taxpayers but hasn't made a decision on which of three proposals, if any, he will support.

The three proposals -- narrowed from a list of 12 contenders last year by a citizens committee -- include renovating the park and adding new amenities, or a hybrid proposal that incorporates numerous ideas. One option, proposed by a coalition of Rye business and property owners, calls for investing $35 million to restore Playland by partnering with restaurant owners, ride operators and others willing to invest in renovations.

Astorino has not set a date for his decision on which proposal to support.

Democratic lawmakers say the they believe the park is making money -- once $3 million in annual debt service is removed from the equation -- and are pushing for an independent audit of the park's fiscal operations and long-term outlook.

They are also staking a claim in determining the future of the landmark entertainment venue, which opened in 1928.

"Rest assured, we're not going to be rushing into anything," said Ken Jenkins (D-Yonkers), chairman of the county legislature, who toured the park Monday with several other Democratic lawmakers. "People pay a lot to live here, so they expect a certain quality of life, and Playland is the least expensive park that we run in Westchester County."

Astorino's office could not be reached for comment Monday. Westchester County Deputy Parks Commissioner Peter Tartaglia declined to comment.

Democrats also recently resurrected a proposal, which was vetoed last year by Astorino, to convert a historic bathhouse at the entertainment park into a children's museum. The nonprofit group behind the museum proposal wants to invest more than $6.4 million in renovations to the bathhouse, but county officials said they need more details about the plan.

Melinda Cruz, 23, who took her two daughters, Felicity and Amber, to the park Monday afternoon, said she has been going to Playland since she was a teenager. If it were her decision, she said, she wouldn't change anything about the amusement park.

"We come here every year, it's a ritual," the Bronx resident said. "It just wouldn't be a summer without Playland."

The park will be open next Sunday from noon to 7 p.m. and will then close for the season. For more information, visit http://ryeplayland.org.

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