The Problem with Playland: Revitalizing and Reinventing Rye Playland
Will Sustainable Playland live up to its name?
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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.”