The Problem with Playland: Revitalizing and Reinventing Rye Playland
Will Sustainable Playland live up to its name?
Illustration by Brandon Reese
Chances are, if you grew up in Westchester County, you’ve been to Playland at some point in your life. And it goes without saying that many “firsts” occurred here—like that awkward-but-memorable first kiss while strolling along the boardwalk overlooking the Long Island Sound, or that jolt of both exhilaration and terror you felt your first time shooting out of the dragon’s mouth on the world-famous Dragon Coaster. Many still hope to experience those magical firsts when Playland reopens for its upcoming season on May 11.
Those memorable gates opened for the first time during the Roaring ’20s—late May of 1928, to be exact. Back then, there were no Six Flags or major theme parks to contend with, and a quaint amusement park designed in Art Deco fashion with scenic views of Long Island Sound and beach access to boot was all the rage.
Times have changed, and Playland can no longer compete with the larger parks and their 128-mph thrills, nor can it keep up with the endless hours and expenses of daily maintenance that are needed to keep it running. For years now, the park has been losing $3 million to $5 million annually—a bill footed by taxpayers. It is, in fact, one of the only government-owned and -operated amusement park in the United States, and many would argue that the government has neither the responsibility nor the budget to run an amusement park, no matter how warm the feelings of nostalgia are.
And not everyone shares those warm feelings, anyway. While the debt on this facility (currently at $32 million) is steadily rising, the attendance is drastically declining. In 2012, there were just 433,000 visitors—down from one million in 2005.
Since Playland was declared a National Historic Landmark in 1987, preservation is of the upmost concern, but there is no denying that something definitely has to change. The County can simply no longer keep up with the constant renovations that need to be done. Throw Mother Nature’s wrath in with the normal maintenance—Playland sustained approximately $12 million worth of damage from Superstorm Sandy alone—and you have a nearly insurmountable expense. Add in the shrinking visitor interest, possibly sparked by a few highly publicized deaths having occurred in the park—the most recent, in 2007, was the third in just over three years—and you’ve got a major liability for the County that’s couched in a few happy memories.
The problems are clear. What, then, is the solution?
When County Executive Rob Astorino ran for office in 2009, he promised that, if elected, he would address the ongoing issue with Playland. It’s still important to him today. “Growing up in Westchester, I attended Playland as a young boy and now enjoy the thrill of taking my children there,” he says. “I love it as a father and as a county executive, but I have a problem to solve—to reinvent Playland for the 21st century.”
In 2010, he began his first phase of the process, which sought out ideas as to what to do with the space. He sent out an RFP (request for proposals), to which there were 12 respondents.
The second phase, in 2011, was to evaluate those proposals. A citizens advisory board consisting of 19 members was assembled to review them; everyone from a high school student to a priest to three legislators were part of the board. “It was a collaborative experience,” says Judy Myers, one of the County legislators on the board. “I thoroughly enjoyed the process, but wished that the entire board of legislators would have been involved from the very beginning as I was.”
After a long and rigorous process that included reviewing the feasibility of each proposal in regard to economical, entertainment, and environmental impact, the committee narrowed it down to just three finalists: Standard Amusements, Central Amusements International, and Sustainable Playland Inc. According to Westchester County Board of Legislators Press Secretary Thomas Staudter: “Standard Amusements’ plan retains County employees and County police, has a $2 million annual marketing budget, four sports fields and a community lawn free for use, and a $25 million financing commitment. Central Amusements proposes to do revamping of rides and placement of many major new rides in the amusement park, a swimming pool renovation creating an interactive water playground, mini-golf replaced with multi-level adventure-style golf, south bathhouse restoration into a children’s entertainment center to complement the Westchester County Children’s Museum, plus a summer camp, preservation of historic rides, restoration of historic structures, and infrastructure improvements.”
When the dust settled, however, Astorino chose to go forward with Sustainable Playland. In April, he held a press conference to announce a 10-year asset-management agreement with the group.
“Sustainable Playland was a winning combination of commercial and civic partnership,” says Westchester County Communications Director Ned McCormack. Unlike the other two finalists, Sustainable Playland looked at the whole 100 acres of Playland, instead of just the 25 acres taken up by the amusement park. SPI, as it is also known, will keep all seven historic rides intact, have a children’s museum, a year-round indoor field house, outdoor fields, a great lawn, a water park, a renovated ice rink, possibly an outdoor rink, and multiple year-round restaurant options, as well as an event space.
According to SPI spokesperson Geoff Thompson, “Playland is quaint, but antiquated. Young people today want more thrill rides and the amusement park as is can’t keep up. Also, the park is weather-dependent and, being that it’s only a seasonal destination, this dramatically decreases the opportunity to make a profit.”
What’s nice “about this option,” he adds, “is that it originated with a group of Rye residents. It is also a more environmental approach, which enhances the views and access to the water.”
SPI will invest $34 million of its own money. It will give $4 million upfront to the County and follow up with $1.2 million per year, with the potential (depending on revenue) of increasing that annual amount. The County currently owes upwards of $32 million in bonds, which it has had to borrow over the years to pay for the many repairs and improvements to the park, in addition to the park’s debt service.
Peter Tartaglia, deputy commissioner of Westchester County Parks, believes that this option is a “win-win for the County and its residents. The park needs investments, which will take the burden off of the County—the residents shouldn’t have to put their hard-earned tax money towards the park.”
Though improvements are no doubt necessary for the park, not everyone welcomes such drastic changes. Meg Cameron, a close neighbor to Playland and a Rye resident for 25 years, says, “My first impulse is a nostalgic one. I kind of would like to see it stay as it is, but some proposed alternatives sound lovely and I am open to them.”
Cameron isn’t alone. A group called Save Rye Playland (saveplaylandamusementpark.org) is protesting SPI’s plan to reduce the size of the amusement park and the removal of certain rides. (The group does support the proposals of Standard Amusements and Central Amusements International, which keep Playland operating primarily as an amusement park.) The group started a petition in February of this year; as of press time, it had more than 2,000 signatures.
Others are happier to see the park moving forward. Denise Diaz, a longtime Rye resident and owner of Rue des Crêpes in Harrison, believes that SPI will be good for the park. “People need to let go of their nostalgia, because the park is clearly failing as is,” she says. “Playland is and has been for a long time a bleeding artery. If this were a person, they would be dead already.” She suggested that it should be “more Central Park meets Bryant Park” in Manhattan, offering a wide range of ideas as to what to do to improve it. “There could be paddle boarding, yoga classes, a summer stage theater, a weekly movie and/or documentary night, and perhaps a Halloween dog parade for adoptable dogs from County shelters. Also, from a restaurant owner’s perspective, there needs to be better food options for the public.”
Mamaroneck resident Chris Szymanowski, a local business owner, agrees. “The park needs to go to the private sector,” he says. “There are a thousand places to have picnics, but picnics don’t make money. Also, there is so much wasted space. It needs to be four seasons. There isn’t enough to bring you back several times a year. If you go once a season, it’s plenty.”
SPI seems to address all of Diaz’s and Szymanowski’s concerns. In fact, the County has hired Dan Biederman of Biederman Redevelopment Ventures Corporation to work alongside SPI in re-imagining the park. Biederman is well known for his work with transforming Bryant Park into the success it is today. “I understand the tremendous emotional attachment,” he says, “but believe that Playland is a better physical site for a mix of uses, instead of just as a one-season amusement park.”
Karen Pecora, president of the Civil Service Employees Association (CSEA) Unit 9200, doesn’t believe that SPI is the best option for the park. “They plan on making it a quiet park by drastically reducing the amusement park aspect, and I don’t think that is the best use for it. In my opinion, the best case would be for the County to continue to run it and find better ways to make money, but I think that every effort should be made for it to remain an amusement park. It’s nice not only for the County, but for its kids, its schools, and its families.”
There are also some who would argue that there isn’t a problem with Playland at all. Ken Jenkins, chairman of the Westchester County Board of Legislators, notes that “in a 2007-08 report, it was found that Playland was the cheapest park run for the residents of the County. It is also the only park to have dollars associated with it. When broken down, it only costs two dollars and change per resident to keep it running. The park generates $28 million in outside revenue for those visiting it by means of gas, dining, et cetera. It’s nearly impossible to say that Playland is losing money when the revenue figures that have been presented to the board of legislators by the administration do not include substantial profit centers like parking, mini-golf, and concessions—nothing, really, outside of ride fees—which is why we will be conducting an independent audit of the park this year. This will help identify whether more efficient and cost-cutting procedures are currently being overlooked.”
On the issue of plummeting attendance, Jenkins says that “it was only since 2008 that attendance was actually counted by the use of wristbands. Up until that point, the numbers were only estimates.”
The website playlandwatch.org notes that revenue for the park was actually increasing. “Revenue was $11.2 million in 2010, $11.6 million in 2011, more than a 9 percent increase compared to 2009. In 2005, the County counted [attendance by] cars (at 4 people per car) and did not charge an entry fee. In 2010, they counted people and charged an entry fee. While its true attendance may be down from peak years, attendance in 2005 and 2010 and 2011 was approximately 590,000, 400,000 and 420,000, respectively. Attendance last year was about even compared to the year before.”
Jenkins also has concerns about SPI’s proposal. “If the County is concerned with making money, Sustainable Playland is actually investing the least amount of money,” he says, noting that although SPI will invest $34 million (a larger amount than the other two proposals), that sum involves additional bonds. “Also, they are looking to put in ball fields, which will take up a large part of the current parking area, so where exactly will people park who will be coming to it and/or Playland?”
In October 2012, however, Astorino began the third and final phase and a letter of intent was issued to SPI. At present, he is waiting on the asset-management agreement to be finalized. But does he have the power to make this decision on his own?
According to Chairperson of Government Relations for Westchester County Catherine Borgia, this is not a done deal as the county executive claims it is. Other options are still being weighed, and the legislators are in the process of doing the aforementioned audit on the park.
After speaking with members of the board of legislators, it became apparent that they didn’t feel as if they were involved in the entire process. They scheduled a public meeting in mid-February and asked all three finalists (including SPI), as well as the newly added Paidia Company, aka Legoland, which also submitted a proposal, to present their plans and submit to a question-and-answer period.
Of the four proposals, “there are pros and cons to each,” Borgia says. “Sustainable is not as economically secure as other plans. It depends on the success of all the different components for overall success. Additionally, there is the concern that, since they plan on significantly reducing the size of the amusement park area, there won’t be as much access, or perhaps they’ll even get rid of it altogether with time. We don’t have an answer yet. We recognize that we have to change things, but, at the same time, keep what’s good about Playland.”
The legislators say they wanted more input from the community. “We want to hear from residents so we can get a feeling of what they want, since the park essentially belongs to them,” says Myers, who was one of the three legislators on the original citizens advisory panel. “We, the legislators, are playing catch-up right now, which is unfair to us. We want to all be of the same mindset going forward.”
The county executive, she says, “can make the decision as to which proposal he chooses, but anything upwards of a 10-year deal involves the board of legislators.” SPI is requesting a 30-year proposal. Jenkins adds, “The board of legislators is legally responsible for all agreements regarding Playland. Take away the $3.6 million of debt service last year, though, and Playland was budgeted to make $1.6 million. All of the proposals deserve the public scrutiny of the board of legislators.”
The legislators’ opinion even has legal support from County Attorney Robert Meehan. In February, Meehan issued a legal opinion that said any major changes to the park are subject to the approval of the legislators.
Until the two branches of government can work together, the issue with Playland will remain as is—in a state of limbo. If SPI is the chosen proposal and the contract is signed, any significant changes won’t go into effect until the 2014 season. Playland will operate as is for the coming season.
What makes things even more interesting is that this is an election year. Astorino hopes that the park won’t become a hot-button issue. “It is time to take the politics out of Playland,” he says, “and I hope that it doesn’t get dragged into the election.” This will only further delay the process of finding a solution, which has already been in the works for two and a half years.
Throughout the process, it has become more than abundantly clear that the problem with Playland is more than just Playland itself. Myers puts it best: “Playland is clearly a beloved asset to the County. This whole process shows how passionate people are about the park for there to be so many varying opinions about what to do to make it better.”
A decision needs to be made or the County and its hard-working taxpayers will continue to be drained financially and emotionally. The one thing all parties involved agree upon is how much they all love P Playland and what it represents for the people of Westchester. It appears hopeful that, moving forward, the park can retain its historic and nostalgic charm with the added bonus of making a profit, as the government undoubtedly has many more important issues requiring its attention.
Cat Zambito is a freelance writer for Westchester Magazine and its affiliates. She also works as a voice-over artist and on-camera talent, having worked on hundreds of tv and radio commercials.