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Rye Playland cuts rides, adds green space, to stay open year-round

The county is moving ahead with a $34 million redevelopment proposal that would give Playland a long-awaited makeover. (Oct. 11, 2012) Videojournalist: Elizabeth Daza

Vowing to make Rye Playland debt-free within a dozen years, Westchester County Executive Rob Astorino Thursday unveiled a plan that would subtract some rides, add green space and keep the doors to the park open 11 or 12 months a year.

Astorino's plan was met with a mix of relief and skepticism from county lawmakers, who said they want to be more involved in the project.

Under the proposal, from the Rye-based nonprofit corporation Sustainable Playland Inc., a coalition of business and property owners would invest $34 million to renovate some of the existing rides. There would also be a year-round restaurant, a small water park, ballfields, an outdoor ice rink to complement the indoor rink now in place, and a "Great Lawn" overlooking Long Island Sound for concerts and graduations.

"The Dragon Coaster will continue to breathe its fire for many years to come," Astorino said of the iconic amusement ride at a news conference at Playland's Ice Casino.

His selection of Sustainable Playland will need to be approved by the county Board of Legislators. In a statement issued early Thursday evening, the county's Democratic lawmakers said they're "pleased" that Astorino has finally made his announcement, but repeated earlier calls for more transparency.

Ken Jenkins, a Yonkers Democrat and chairman of the Legislature, cautioned that Astorino's announcement "is just the beginning of a long process," and said lawmakers intend to review the plan in detail.

"The plan appears to address some of the major financial and operational issues that this county government has been wrestling with for more than a decade," Legis. Bill Ryan (D-White Plains), said. "But a decision of this magnitude regarding one of the County's most important properties must be made jointly by the Executive and Legislature."

The park has seen attendance plunge from about 1 million in 2005 to 430,000 in 2012, Astorino said. In recent years, annual losses have ranged from $3 million to $5 million, he said, creating an untenable drain on taxpayers.

After two years of considering alternatives and soliciting bids, the winning proposal came from Sustainable Playland Inc., which would pay $4 million upfront and about $1.2 million a year to the county under a 10-year management agreement.

Those payments will go toward the $32 million in outstanding debt the county is carrying on Playland, Astorino said, saving the county $18 million in interest and principal over the bond's remaining 12-year life.

Sustainable Playland will hand day-to-day operations to New York City-based Biederman Redevelopment Ventures, which oversaw the redevelopment of Manhattan's Bryant Park and consults on management of Boston Common.

Dan Biederman, Biederman co-founder, likened the plans to Tivoli Gardens in downtown Copenhagen, a mixed-use park that includes amusement rides.

"The county has struck a good deal for itself," he said.

Along with the Dragon Coaster, Kiddyland rides and the carousel would be retained, but rides obscuring views of the Long Island Sound will be scrapped, officials said.

Karen Butler of Rye said she'd like to know more about visual changes at the park, and whether new construction would be consistent with the park's art deco style.

"The tastefulness of what they do is probably the litmus test," she said. "If they really attract families, it will be great."

Donna Caroll, 59, said as a teenager, the Port Chester native worked at cotton candy and custard stands on the boardwalk. She has not been back to Playland since the park began charging for admission, and said she believes new plans should consider adults as well as children.

"It's a great place and I'm really happy that they're going to try and do something with it," Caroll said.

The Sustainable Playland option is among three proposals county officials have been considering -- narrowed from a Rye citizen committee's list of 12 contenders -- to renovate 100 acres of the sprawling, 280-acre property off Long Island Sound.

Astorino said he already has begun reaching out for legislators' support.

"We're going to go through whatever proposal is offered carefully and methodically," Ken Jenkins, chairman of the Board of Legislators, told Newsday before Astorino's announcement.

Among the finalists rejected were:

• Central Amusements, a New Jersey-based firm that proposed to invest $750,000 in capital projects and add new attractions and rides, including a 4-D movie theater.

• Standard Amusements, a New York City-based company that proposed to provide a $5 million upfront payment and spend millions for infrastructure improvements.

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