Westchester County Executive Rob Astorino challenged the Board of Legislators on Thursday to approve his plan to overhaul Rye Playland by next year or risk losing millions of dollars of investment into the frayed, yet treasured, county-owned amusement park.
"If this is going to get bogged down in politics, if this is going to become an election-year issue to stop it, then the only people who suffer are the taxpayers," said Astorino, a Republican who has a history of rocky relations with the Democrats who control the Board of Legislators.
Astorino spoke before an audience of around 60 people during a news conference at the county offices in White Plains, where he unveiled a management agreement with Sustainable Playland, the Rye-based nonprofit organization that hopes to operate the park.
This year, political tensions between Astorino and the board are particularly strained. Two Democratic legislators are seeking their party's nomination to unseat the county executive when he runs for re-election in November. Those tensions were on display in the Democrats' response to Astorino's announcement.
"I was disappointed," said Legis. Bill Ryan (D-White Plains), who is running for the Democratic nomination for county executive. "He seems determined to push this through. I was really hoping that the executive and board would work together to really take a look at what the options are, to do this together in a partnership."
Other Democrats criticized Astorino's plan of handing management of the park to an outside group.
"The Astorino administration said its goal was to stop losing money at Playland, but Sustainable is not the way," said Legis. Pete Harckham (D-Katonah) in a statement. "This agreement essentially privatizes county parkland, and so residents will be charged to use ballfields. If ballfields are the goal, our Parks Department has built ballfields all over the county."
PLAYLAND'S FUTURE 'AT STAKE'
Under the agreement, Sustainable Playland would invest $34 million to renovate the park while keeping its historic character, pay the county $4 million upfront and make rental payments of $1.2 million annually for at least 10 years once the group is fully managing the facility. The organization also would have the option of extending the agreement for another decade.
The funds would help pay off the $35 million in debt connected to the 85-year-old park, which has grown increasingly shabby. Losing as much $5 million annually in recent years, Playland attracted 430,000 people last year, down from 1 million seven years ago, the county executive noted.
Astorino laid out a timetable that he said was vital to fulfilling the agreement. Legislators will play a key role in keeping to that schedule, he said. If they don't approve the agreement by January 2014, the nonprofit organization has the right to pull out of the deal.
"It is imperative that the process move forward; everyone does their due diligence, which has been happening for two years now; and that this does not get bogged down in political paralysis," he said. "If it does, then the future of Playland is, quite frankly, at stake."
The county's Board of Acquisition and Contract is expected to approve the deal within two weeks, said Astorino, who controls two out of the three votes on the board.
Under the pact, Sustainable Playland must submit a so-called "improvement plan" that details the major alterations it intends to make at the site within 30 days of the board's decision.
A $7 million water park, $12.4 million worth of new sports facilities and fields and $600,000 in upgrades to the Ice Casino were among the changes contained in a statement Astorino provided at the news event.
If he approves the improvement plan, Astorino would send it to legislators who, under the county charter, must approve significant changes to county property.
The agreement stipulates that Sustainable Playland would take control of Playland on Oct. 1, at the end of the amusement park's season. If the legislators don't approve the group's improvements to the park, their plan would be compromised and they likely would pull out of the deal, Astorino said.
'ONE BIG HAPPY FAMILY'
Astorino's challenge appeared intended to avoid the setbacks that he has encountered since he first floated the idea of reinventing Playland three years ago.
Chosen in October from among 12 other responses to a request for proposals for the park, Sustainable Playland initially hoped to assume control of the park this summer.
Members of the Board of Legislators have criticized Astorino for claiming the authority to reach an agreement with an outside contractor to take over a major county asset like Playland. In February, county Attorney Robert Meehan issued a legal opinion saying that Astorino had the authority to sign a pact but that legislators would need to approve major construction and other structural changes.
Last year, Democrats on the board also approved a lease with the Westchester Children's Museum to move into the North Bathhouse on the site, effectively setting up a competing vision for the new park.
Astorino has questioned whether the lease is legal. On Thursday, however, he made a point of saying he wanted the Children's Museum to be part of Playland's future.
"We're all one big, happy family with one big mission: to have Playland succeed," he said.
It's possible the museum could fit into Sustainable Playland's vision.
The group intends to serve as an umbrella organization that will subcontract operations of distinct areas of the park to other vendors.
A skating rink company would run the Ice Casino, and an amusement company would oversee the Dragon Coaster and other rides, for example. Most of those vendors want to make significant changes to the park, including erecting new buildings and moving rides.