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McKinstry: Don't let politics derail children's museum

Rye Playland prepares for their opening on May

Rye Playland prepares for their opening on May 12 in Rye. (May 8, 2012) Photo Credit: Susan Stava

If relations between Westchester County Executive Rob Astorino and county lawmakers were a ride at Playland, they'd be the bumper cars -- full of bangs, turns and collisions. Even some tie-ups.

Or maybe a roller coaster.

Whatever ride you prefer, when the Westchester Children's Museum is added to the mix, you get a sense that everybody's looking at different mirrors in the fun house. Only nobody's laughing.

The Westchester County Board of Legislators last week sent a $1-a-year lease to the nonprofit museum, which has no permanent home and provides traveling exhibits at community centers and nonprofit organizations. But the lease, to renovate and occupy space at Playland Amusement Park in Rye, comes nearly a year after the board approved the contract.

Sure, Astorino vetoed the bill after an Aug. 8, 2011, vote, but that only delayed the approval by a couple of weeks. Democrats and Republicans unanimously overrode that one, lauding this as an ideal partnership. So like many board watchers, you might have figured this fight was behind them.

It's too bad that it's not history. A children's museum is a great complement to the seasonal park, assuming the group can raise the money and sustain operations. There's no reason to think it can't do both: If it's anything like Stepping Stones in Norwalk, the museum would tap hundreds of thousands of kids -- and their parents -- willing to drop the $10 to $15 a pop.

Because of some contractual language in the lease, the parties couldn't execute the deal until the exterior of the 1928 bathhouse was complete. Now, after a construction delay that included getting rid of a contractor, the outside of the building will soon be finished.

So the lease can be signed, right? That's one view.

A problem, and it's a big one, is that the county executive believes the lease must be approved by the Board of Contract and Acquisition, where Astorino controls two of the three votes. And you sure get a sense that he won't sign off on any buck-a-year deal, since he's cool to the idea of having a museum take up prime boardwalk space.

When you consider he has high hopes for a reinvented park that stops hemorrhaging money -- $5 million a year, according to recent estimates -- it's unlikely this contract will be on any expedited stack.

It might just sit -- perhaps until after September, when Team Astorino is supposed to make an announcement about the park's future.

"We'd like to see their financial data," Ned McCormack, Astorino's senior adviser, said this week of the nonprofit. "There are rules of the road and we're following the rules."

The road to Rye Playland, it seems, is blocked until further notice.

Under the terms of the board-approved lease, the Westchester Children's Museum would occupy about half, or 21,000 square feet, of the former men's bathhouse on the Playland boardwalk and kick in $6.4 million for interior renovations in exchange for the basically free rent.

The county has spent around $8 million shoring up the historic art deco building, but the board agreed to let the museum handle the inside. It plans to spend another $7 million on attractions like a climbing structure and interactive exhibits. It has a quick two years to get this off the ground or the contract becomes void. That out clause is key for the county.

But the organization needs a lease to continue its fundraising, according to Tracy Kay, executive director of the museum. He maintains that the nonprofit has raised or garnered commitments of around $7 million and already spent $1 million on construction designs.

What started out as a 90-day delay on a lease in 2010 after Astorino took office turned into a 6-month pause that is still going on three years later, Kay said.

"It's difficult for us to keep momentum of the campaign with delay after delay after delay," he said. "Without a lease, we haven't been able to fund-raise. We have two years to close the funding gap."

Two years may sound like a lot of time. But when you consider building approvals, fundraising in this lousy economy and the ongoing disagreement over this project, you can't help but wonder where it is going.

Let's hope the project is not another issue for the courts.

County Legis. Judy Myers, a Democrat whose district include Rye, said the board didn't need Astorino's sign-off on the contract and that the county executive was just plain "shortsighted" on this issue.

She also thinks the county executive might bend since the money behind the museum comes from some of his backers.

"I would not be surprised if there's a turnaround," she said. "He may find a lot of his supporters are big supporters of the children's museum."

The county needs to be diligent so that taxpayers aren't on the hook. And the museum needs to raise money fast. But the two branches of government have to make sure that petty politics and disagreements over process don't get in the way. For this to work, they have to play nice.

After all, it's a museum, not a ride.

Gerald McKinstry is a member of the Newsday editorial board.

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