Rye Playland plagued by delays as opening day looms

Rye Playland celebrates the opening of its new

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

Westchester County Executive Rob Astorino’s plan to turn over management of Rye Playland to a local nonprofit has run into a series of setbacks.

The county-owned amusement park is expected to open on schedule on May 11. But lingering over the festivities will be questions about the condition of the beloved but aging park’s facilities and the future of its administration.

"Things have gone off the rails," said Legis. Catherine Borgia (D-Ossining), a frequent of the Republican county executive's plan for the park. "We learn in dribs and drabs about all the things that have gone wrong."


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In March, Astorino intended to sign a new contract with Sustainable Playland, the Rye nonprofit organization he chose to manage the county-owned amusement park. But legal questions have pushed that date back. Sustainable Playland is not expected to take over the park this summer.

County officials recently also announced delays in completion dates for repairs of the Ice Casino and the boardwalk.

The potential problems aren't limited to the Republican county executive's plans. Questions about the Children's Museum's financing have emerged, compromising a proposal for the park promoted by Democratic legislators like Borgia.

Astorino's communications director, Ned McCormack, said the county soon would complete a contract with Sustainable Playland. Superstorm Sandy, holidays like Passover and Easter and other developments have understandably complicated negotiations, he said.

"We're in the final stages," McCormack said. "Everybody is working hard on it. We hope to have it resolved shortly."

Geoffrey Thompson, a spokesman for Sustainable Playland, agreed.

"It's probably taken longer than anybody had anticipated, but we are very close to the end at this point," he said. "Many, many hours have gone into this. It's not an insignificant document."

SCRUTINY OVER DEAL

Yet even after the county and nonprofit seal an agreement, their plan to reorganize the park faces significant challenges.

Democratic legislators long have been critical of Astorino's drive to unilaterally sign an agreement with Sustainable Playland. Now even Republican legislators are vowing to scrutinize the agreement.

"What's the respective roles of the Board of Legislators and the executive branch?" said Legis. David Gelfarb (R-Harrison, Rye Brook, Port Chester). "There is always a tension between the two branches. We want our prerogatives and roles respected."

Gelfarb's comments come after county attorney Robert Meehan, at the request of Legis. Gordon Burroughs (R-Bronxville), released a legal opinion in late February that said legislators had to approve major infrastructure changes in the park.

Thompson said he and Astorino understood that they couldn't bypass the county Legislature if they wanted to remove rides, move buildings and make other alterations to Playland. Shortly after the management agreement is approved, Sustainable Playland and the county executive intend to file legislation that would outline a package of changes they plan to make at the park. They'll ask legislators to approve all the changes in one swoop rather than individually, he said.

"We would like the board to approve an improvement plan for Playland that would include the various elements that we have talked about," Thompson said.

MUSEUM FUNDRAISING STALLED

The nonprofit Westchester Children's Museum likely would not be part of that improvement plan. Democrats signed a lease with the museum last year, but Astorino has yet to approve that contract.

The group's representatives say they need $10 million to convert the park's North Bathhouse into a museum. It's not clear where they might find that money, however.

Corinne Zola, president of the museum, acknowledged the museum was having trouble raising money because Astorino hasn't allowed it to start construction in the bathhouse before he signs a deal with Sustainable Playland.

"Without a lease, our ability to raise money for a capital campaign is stalled somewhat," she said. "Without access to the building, how can we raise money?"

Given the slack fundraising and the finances outlined in the group's most recent financial statement -- dated May 2012 but showing the group's finances only through June 2011 -- the group's bank account could be running low.

Nearly a year and a half old, the statement shows that the group had $935,000 in cash and $350,000 in fundraising revenues but $500,000 in expenses for the period it covers. The group also had $1.2 million in assets, including construction plans and other materials.

Asked whether the museum's revenues had kept up with expenses as donations have flagged, Zola claimed the museum now has $2 million in cash in the bank. She added that the museum was now finalizing its most recent financial statement.

Museum executive director Tracy Kay also said the nonprofit organization has secured $350,000 in approved state grants that can only used for construction.

REPAIRS ON HOLD

Construction delays stemming from superstorm Sandy also are bedeviling Playland.

Concerns over the legality of construction contracts, which were awarded under emergency rules in the wake of the storm, have led officials to redo the process. Now work on the Ice Casino is expected to begin this summer. The boardwalk is scheduled to be repaired by opening day.

Under the agreement with Sustainable Playland, the county must repair the damage to the park in order to hand over a facility that's in basically good condition, McCormack said. That part of the management agreement has been among the easiest to nail down, he said.

"The county owns the property, will continue to own the property and is responsible for it and will present it to the operator, Sustainable Playland, in a condition that is acceptable to everybody," McCormack said.

Clarification: A prior version of this story suggested that Playland would not open on May 11.

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