Westchester County legislators ask if taxpayers will pick up Playland tab
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Democrats and Republicans on the Westchester County Board of Legislators raised tough questions Tuesday about the financing behind Sustainable Playland, the nonprofit organization chosen by Republican County Executive Rob Astorino to run the public amusement park in Rye.
"Certainly, we need to see the overall bottom line," said Legis. Michael Kaplowitz (D-Somers) at a meeting of the board's Government Operations Committee.
Under Sustainable Playland's proposal, it would invest $34 million to modernize Playland Amusement Park and lease out sections of the park to a collection of for-profit subcontractors who would separately operate amusement rides, playing fields, ice skating rinks, restaurants and other amenities. The group would pay the county an up-front $4 million fee and rental payments of $1.2 million for a decade.
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Kaplowitz said he welcomes the expansion of park offerings. But he asked representatives of Sustainable Playland and its partners how they expected to generate sufficient revenue and attract enough visitors to Playland when their plan would shrink the park's parking lots from 1,800 spaces to 1,450 spaces.
"It's pretty tight to begin with," said Kaplowitz, who said he often has sat in a line of cars waiting to enter Playland on hot summer days.
Legis. Gordon Burrows (R-Bronxville) wondered whether, in the event Sustainable Playland fails to generate sufficient revenue, the county will be on the hook. He cited how Robert Moses -- the controversial urban planner who built highways, bridges and parks in the New York City region during the Depression and after World War II -- often pursued that strategy in realizing his plans.
"He'd build the project halfway, then there would be a bait and switch, they'd leave and then the politicians had to come in and save the project with taxpayer money," Burrows said.
Responding to Kaplowitz and Burrows' concerns, investor John Abate, who would operate a collection of playing fields and basketball courts in the park, said the county would keep the upgraded sports facilities in the event that his business failed. Abate said he would take full responsibility for debt incurred to build the facilities.
"I'm on the full hook for the money," Abate said.
Abate and his partner, Norm Gill of Pinnacle Indoor Sports, a sports club developer, said they would charge fees comparable to those charged at Chelsea Piers in Manhattan and similar facilities -- around $250 an hour for a soccer field. Those fees would generate enough cash to keep them afloat, they said.
But Legis. Virginia Perez (D-Yonkers) asked whether those charges would be appropriate, given that Playland is popular among families from Yonkers and Mount Vernon who don't have much disposable income.
"I would like to know how a low-income family can afford this," she said.
Also appearing before the board was the new president of Sustainable Playland, Kim Morque, a commercial real estate developer with South Norwalk, Conn.-based Spinnaker Real Estate Partners. Morque replaced Dhruv Narain, an investment banker and Rye resident who stepped down after revelations surfaced that he owed nearly $250,000 in property taxes.
Representatives from Mega FunWorks, which owns the Rocking Horse Ranch Resort in Highland, testified on their plans to restore Playland's amusement park rides. And American Skating Entertainment Centers, which owns the Westchester Skating Academy in Elmsford, discussed their plans to improve the Ice Casino for hockey leagues.
For the past few months, county legislators have been meeting with contractors who have expressed interest in renovating and managing the park, even though Astorino, a Republican, committed the county to cooperation with Sustainable Playland in 2012.
Legislators, especially Democrats, contend that the county executive needs their approval before approving a contract with Sustainable Playland. Astorino claims he can sign a deal with the group using the authority he would use to hire a vendor to operate a county golf courses -- a move that requires only the approval of the county's Board of Acquisition and Contract, a panel Astorino controls.
In December, Astorino's communications director, Ned McCormack, said the county executive would sign a contract with Sustainable Playland at the end of the month. McCormack said Tuesday that talks between the county and vendor groups likely now will continue for a few more weeks as lawyers on both sides hammer out routine elements of a deal.
"It's just the nuts and bolts," McCormack said.
Superstorm Sandy caused more than $12 million worth of damage to Playland. On Monday night, legislators unanimously approved bonds to fund repairs to the park. The federal government is likely to compensate the county for those costs.
One bond issue, totaling $7.6 million, would go toward repairing Playland's boardwalk, which was damaged by high winds and a storm surge. The second issue, for $4.9 million, would fund repairs to the roof, boilers and structure at the Playland Ice Casino. Sustainable Playland then would further renovate and upgrade those structures as part of its master plan for the site.
Playland typically opens around Memorial Day. The Ice Casino is a year-round attraction.
Ken Schachter contributed to this report.