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Rye Playland takeover: Lawmakers grill nonprofit owner

Playland Park celebrates the opening of its new

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

Westchester County legislators on Tuesday grilled the president of the nonprofit that is seeking to take over Rye Playland, raising questions about the group's financing and whether taxpayers will be on the hook for the company's liabilities if its plans for Playland fail.

In exchanges that at times grew testy, lawmakers asked Dhruv Narain of Sustainable Playland Inc. how he could remove a third of the amusement park's rides, incur as much as $33.5 million in debt, pay annual rent of $1.2 million on the county-owned park and still cover other expenses.

This year, Rye Playland is on track to lose around $1.6 million under county management, according to documents provided by legislators.

A former Goldman Sachs financier who now manages investments at an insurance company, Narain occasionally bristled at lawmakers' questions, saying his team commissioned market studies to ensure the park would run an annual surplus of $400,000 under their management.

"I don't think it's productive to have 15 people in a room and go through a spreadsheet line item by line item," said Narain. "I do this for a living. I've done this for the last 20 years. I know how to build a budget. I've run successful businesses. I know how to make this work."

The lawmakers said they thought highly of Sustainable Playland's proposal, but cautioned Narain that he needs to get used to scrutiny.

"Understand, this is not a normal operation," Legis. Michael Kaplowitz, a Democrat, told Narain. "It is, unfortunately, very public. And again, the ramifications of the decisions are going to be very public. The people deserve to have their representatives informed."

Sustainable Playland wants to renovate around 100 acres of the 280-acre park on Long Island Sound. The nonprofit plans to add water slides, restaurants, an open area akin to Central Park's Great Lawn in New York City, indoor playing fields and other amenities to make the park a year-round venue.

Earlier this month, County Executive Robert Astorino announced Sustainable Playland had emerged as the best qualified private manager for the park based on competition among contractors who submitted redevelopment proposals. Under the group's proposal, the nonprofit gives the county $4 million upfront and then makes rental payments for 10 years.

Astorino, a Republican, claims the plan would save the county money by taking the park's operations, and the resulting loss, off the county's hands. The county faces an $86 million shortfall in next year's budget.

It's not clear if the Board of Legislators needs to sign off on Narain's proposal. Astorino claims that he doesn't need the board to approve the deal, as long as it's drafted as an "asset management agreement," rather than a lease. Democratic legislators who control a majority of the board say Astorino needs their assent.

Legislators backed a new venture in the park that is unconnected to Sustainable Playland.

Last Week, board chairman Ken Jenkins signed a lease to allow the Westchester Children's Museum to open in a former bathhouse in the park. Astorino and Republican legislators claim the lease isn't valid.

Narain said he has spoken to the representatives of the Children's Museum. The two groups might be able to work together, he said, but he declined to offer further thoughts on the museum's lease or his agreement with the county executive.

"We are trying not to be political," he said.

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