Political gridlock holds up millions in Rye Playland development
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Westchester County politicians are holding up millions of dollars in renovations at Rye Playland, said leaders of the two nonprofit organizations tapped to revamp the aging but beloved county-owned amusement park.
Representatives of Sustainable Playland and the Westchester Children's Museum said they have been raising money in anticipation of following through with agreements they made with County Executive Rob Astorino and the Board of Legislators late last year. Questions linger, however, about whether the politicians can honor those agreements, and in the meantime the two groups are sitting on their blueprints and cash.
"Like any business operation, you want more clarity rather than less," said Kim Morque, president of Sustainable Playland.
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The nonprofit organization has raised $1.5 million of the $34 million it needs to realize its plans for expanding the amusement park to become a year-round venue, Morque said. Sustainable Playland plans to obtain much of its funding from subcontractors who would operate park attractions and with debt raised through the Westchester County Local Development Corp.
Democratic legislators have insisted Sustainable Playland's deal to run the park with Astorino, a Republican, isn't valid. On Feb. 22, the Democrats' position was partially vindicated when county attorney Robert Meehan issued a legal opinion finding that lawmakers have a say over large-scale changes to the park.
WELCOMING THE COMPETITION
Morque said engaging with the lawmakers in a recent series of meetings on the future of Playland has been good for his group, even if those sessions have included other vendors who have sought to manage Playland in the past.
"Generally, going through the public process really makes any plan better," he said. "You get input from the public and lots of different points of view, and it causes a critical filter, if you will, to come into the process."
Nonetheless, Sustainable Playland would be in a much stronger position to raise money if the lawmakers and county executive resolved their differences, Morque added.
"That would certainly help us and give more confidence to our operators and so forth," he said.
The Westchester Children's Museum has $2.5 million on hand and $2.5 million in pledged donations, around half of the $10 million it needs for its plan to convert the North Bathhouse of the park into a museum, said the nonprofit organization's executive director, Tracy Kay.
But the museum has signed a lease only with the Westchester County Board of Legislators. It's unclear whether the county executive or the Board of Acquisition and Contract needs to approve the pact.
Like Morque, Kay said more donors likely would come forward if the museum could erase doubts about whether it eventually will be permitted to move into the bathhouse.
"Obviously, a lot of people are waiting for us to take complete control of the site," Kay said. "The next hurdle to open up the floodgates is to have this resolved at the county level in regard to our lease and the overall plan for Playland."
ENSURING SHARED GOALS
Astorino has been open to the museum moving to Playland, but he wants to make sure the group meshes with Sustainable Playland's vision for the park.
"The Children's Museum should be working with the park operator, and we wanted to know who the park operator would be before we proceeded," said Ned McCormack, the county executive's communications director, who added that he expects the county to sign an agreement with Sustainable Playland to manage the park later this month.
Both Morque and Kay said they didn't foresee any problems integrating Sustainable Playland's plans with the museum.
"They've done a terrific job as an organization," Morque said.
Legis. Judy Myers (D-Larchmont), whose district includes Playland, increasingly has come under pressure to reconcile the differences between Board of Legislators chairman Ken Jenkins (D-Yonkers) and Astorino on Playland.
Myers said she favors both Sustainable Playland and the Children's Museum's proposals for the park. Sorting out the questions about how legislators and the county executive have approved those plans has been difficult, she acknowledged.
"If this had been a joint effort from the get-go, all of these things would have been worked out in the process," Myers noted.
Fundraising isn't the only casualty of the political gridlock. Sustainable Playland is struggling to sell its vision to the public as officials debate whether the nonprofit has a valid claim to revamp the park, Morque said.
"There is really this perception, and I think it is an incorrect one, that Sustainable Playland wants to remove or diminish the amusement park," he said. "We don't really feel that's the case at all. We want to restore the amusement park."
Highlighting Morque's comments, an online petition circulating among Playland fans had garnered more than 1,030 signatures Tuesday in protest of Sustainable Playland's proposal. The Facebook page associated with the petition has 832 members.
Sustainable Playland "plans to remove 30% of the rides and reduce the footprint size of (the) amusement park by over 50%," the petition Save Playland Amusement Park on Change.org reads. "We believe that decreasing the size of the amusement park and removing rides will drastically reduce the number of paying users of Playland."
The petition states that other proposals by Standard Amusements and Central Amusements International to renovate the park would preserve more rides. Keith Iorio, a White Plains architect who helped organize the petition, said neither he nor other organizers had ties to the two companies.
"The petition was started by a loose group of Westchester residents who want to see Playland remain an amusement park," he said.
Geoff Thompson, a spokesman for Sustainable Playland, said he understood why people who grew up going to Playland might be concerned about changes there, but he added that the 85-year-old park has to be renovated. That pressing need often has been lost amid the politics, he said.
"There has been a lot of confusion sown into the discussion," he added.