As far back as October, it was Sustainable Playland Inc. that was the apparent winner in taking over operations of Rye Playland, the county-owned money pit that last year was awash in $3.4 million in red ink.
With a signed letter of intent in hand, Sustainable Playland had pledged to invest more than $34 million in the amusement park and make an upfront payment of $4 million and minimum annual payments of $1.2 million to Westchester County.
Sustainable Playland had said it would assume all responsibility for the park’s management for a period of 10 years, with the county retaining ownership of the 280-acre park that hugs the Long Island Sound.
But Democratic legislators expressed skepticism about the deal, concerned that taxpayers would still be on the hook for Playland’s debt.
Peter Harckham, majority leader of the Westchester County Board of Legislators, said it is a simple case of the lawmakers doing their due diligence before they agree to anything.
“It’s a complicated process,” Harckham said. “We need to sort out the issues. That’s our responsibility to the people of Westchester and to the people who use and work at the park.”
With that in mind, the board of legislators Feb. 13 invited Sustainable Playland along with three other bidders – Central Amusements International, Standard Amusements and Padia Company/Legoland – to the Little Theater of the Westchester County Center to present their visions for the park.
Harckham said he wants to work collaboratively with County Executive Robert P. Astorino to ensure that Westchester residents get the best deal possible.
“I see this as a collaborative parallel process,” Harckham said. “My goal is that we come together with one vision for the people of Westchester.”
Astorino has made privatizing Playland a priority since he took office in 2010, when he issued a request for proposals to run the park. In addition to losing $3.4 million last year, Playland’s revenues have fallen 4.6 percent since 2010 with attendance dropping to half of what it was in 2005.
Geoff Thompson, a spokesman for Sustainable Playland, said, “The process appears to be moving forward. Everyone is interested, concerned or curious about the parallel process that the Board of Legislators has begun.”
Thompson said that Sustainable Playland’s approach is the right one and the public hearing had overwhelming support for his group’s proposal.
“We are trying to make it a year-round park with year-round activities,” Thompson said. “We will have all sorts of programs. The historic rides will be enhanced and repaired.”
Thompson expressed concern about the process being dragged out and Playland’s revitalization being delayed.
“We will continue to cooperate and pursue the completion of a management agreement,” Thompson said. “It would be really great if the legislators and county executive can come to an agreement. Playland needs to have a long-term future. Hopefully legislators can come to the same conclusion so we can move forward. We are ready to move forward.”
Thompson said that the legislators approached Sustainable Playland and the other finalists about their proposals, but assumed that since Astorino issued the RFP and respondents responded to his office, that he would make the final recommendation.
“I don’t see how it was illogical,” Thompson said. “No one went before the Board of Legislators.”
When the Board of Legislators finishes their review process, Thompson said he is confident that they will choose Sustainable Playland.
Ross J. Pepe, President of the Construction Industry Council of Westchester and Hudson Valley Inc. criticized the lawmakers for dragging their feet on Playland, saying that badly needed construction jobs are at stake.
“Thousands of workers who will one day draw paychecks from Playland’s construction and operations are again forced to sit on the sidelines while elected officials grandstand under the guise of public scrutiny,” Pepe said. “Approve a plan so that our residents can get back to work.”
Harckham said, “We’re not going to apologize for doing our due diligence. That’s our responsibility.”
Ned McCormack, director of communications for Astorino, said that the county’s executive office hopes to have an agreement with Sustainable Playland finalized by next month.
“We have to save Playland,” McCormack said. “Losing $3 million to $5 million a year is not an option. This is parkland; this is the legacy of Westchester. This is one of the most spectacular pieces of property you’re ever going to find.”
Tom Staudter, spokesman for Democrats on the Board of Legislators, said that the deal with Sustainable Playland was a quick backdoor decision that the public had little chance to weigh in on. He accused Astorino’s office of working diligently to make sure that Playland doesn’t succeed.
“The marketing budget is the same as it was in 1987,” Staudter said. “There are no TV or radio ads. We could be running this park and making money. There are things that could’ve been done better.”
McCormack said that the citizens’ advisory committee commissioned to review the bids included four legislators, two of them Democrats.
“The transparency has been unprecedented,” McCormack said. “It’s so important to have the public on board. We welcome the board’s due diligence. We have to move forward, we picked a winner.”
As the process continues, Playland readies for its 85th season with a job fair set March 9 at the Westchester County Center in White Plains. And although the Ice Casino and sections of the boardwalk remain closed due to damage incurred by Hurricane Sandy, opening day for the park is May 11.