Board Won’t Simply Hand County’s Landmark Park Over to Private Interests
Rye, NY – Three Democratic members of the Westchester County Board of Legislators called today for an independent audit of Playland, the 280-acre County park and National Historic Landmark, because of troubling inconsistencies and omissions in the data regarding the park’s attendance and revenue figures being reported by the Astorino Administration.
The legislators—Judy Myers (D-Larchmont), chair of the BOL Budget & Appropriations Committee; Catherine Borgia (D-Ossining), chair of the BOL Government Operations Committee; and Bill Ryan (D-White Plains), chair of the BOL Legislation Committee—made their announcement at a press conference held at Playland in the amusement park.
Also, the legislators vowed not to simply hand the beloved, family-friendly destination over to private operators or developers without a rigorous analysis and approval process.
“Once again, it is obvious that County Executive Rob Astorino and his Administration do not have a handle on the numbers,” said Myers. “The revenue figures that have been presented to the Board of Legislators do not include substantial profit centers like parking, mini golf and concessions—none of the revenues, in fact, budgeted for the year outside of ride fees, and it is important that these totals and the manner in which they have been reached are independently verified.”
Continued Myers: “As for attendance, there is, again, no way to verify their figures, and when more than 13,000 season pass owners are only being counted once in the annual totals, then it’s time to look closely at both the figures and the process for coming up with those figures. As it is said, audits are good for business. It’s about time Playland had a top to bottom evaluation of finances and operations.”
Legislation to authorize and conduct the independent financial and operational audit will be forthcoming, said Myers, who noted the County Charter presently requires the BOL to audit the County’s finances, which it does. But a full audit of just Playland needs to take place in order to understand how and why certain figures are generated, Myers said, and whether more efficient (and cost-cutting) operational procedures are being overlooked.
“The main point is that the Administration has failed to take the necessary steps to realize the full potential of Playland,” said Ryan, who previously chaired the BOL committee charged with oversight of the County parks. “There has always been a balance of public and private operations at Playland, but for the past three years the Astorino Administration has done nothing to make this magnificent county resource more attractive to private businesses. We’ve been seeing fewer and fewer concessionaires operating rides and games and selling food in the last three years, and that helps explains decreasing revenues. Clearly, the Administration has missed some opportunities at Playland.”
Legislator Ryan emphasized that the “failed admission policy,” in which patrons must pay upwards of $30 for entrance into the park, has continued to drive attendance downwards—while the Administration has done nothing other than exacerbate the situation by charging residents to simply enter the park, as it did last year.
“Playland isn’t making the money it should be,” said Ryan, “and that track record for the last three years falls on the County Executive. The admission policy, which has driven down attendance, can be seen as a failure—so why not change it? Why did the Administration negotiate its deals with the concessions downward, thus decreasing revenue instead of boosting it? Where are the new attractions? New water rides? New restaurants? I don’t see any effort to improve Playland as an attraction since Astorino took office, so to lament its purported decline while neglecting to do anything to turn things around is a failure of leadership, to say the least. The County Executive obviously does not have the will or the heart to make Playland better.”
The legislators also noted that Playland has not been adequately marketed in the last three years, and they questioned the absence of television and radio advertising for the park.
“Years ago, Westchester County had one of the most powerful radio stations in the metropolitan New York area onboard as part of the Playland marketing effort, but there has been no effort to put such a key relationship back in place,” Ryan remarked. “The truth is, for three seasons Playland has been programmed to self-destruct. What is the real agenda here? The potential at Playland is immense, and the Administration has wasted three years in this regard. Playland is ready to be lit up and become a star attraction, but the county executive wants to pull out the plug and give it away.”
Without $3.6 million of debt service costs tacked on to its balance sheet, the iconic amusement park is budgeted to make almost $1.6 million this year. Counting debt service and projecting this year’s revenue and expenses, Playland will end up representing about $2 million of the County’s tax levy—or about forty-eight (48) cents per resident. (Playland and Hudson Hills Golf Course are the only Westchester Parks facilities that have their debt service costs counted as an expense. All told, the 2012 Budget for Westchester Parks is about $49 million in expenses and $37 million in revenue.)
“Westchester residents have been supporting—and enjoying—Playland for eighty-four years, and that also means several generations of emotional investment as well,” said Borgia. “This is a vital part of Westchester history, and like the rest of our parks, it’s a resource that makes our county special and contributes greatly to our quality of life here.”
Borgia and her BOL colleagues voiced their enthusiastic support for the types of public-private partnerships that benefit all parties and make good financial sense, both short- and long-term. But the Administration’s efforts at re-visioning Playland, now three years in the works, have been accomplished behind closed doors and without any assistance or collaboration with the BOL, which will have to approve any new plans for Playland.
“The Board of Legislators has stood up for Playland and even invested eight million dollars in refurbishing the park, including the North Bathhouse for future use as a Children’s Museum, which is a successful private-public partnership that has the support of thousands of people around Westchester,” Borgia stated. “This year-round attraction, set to open within two years, will help ensure a profitable future for Playland. But things would have been much better if the Administration and the Board had worked together to strengthen Playland’s position as a family destination. Right now, we have no idea what the Administration is doing with the various proposals it has received in regard to Playland’s future, even though we repeatedly asked some of the people involved in the proposal process to come speak with the Board.”
Legislator Borgia noted that Playland is Westchester’s largest youth employer, and because jobs are so scarce for young people today the BOL would do everything possible to protect those jobs—and a way of life for thousands of residents over the past several generations.
“Anything the Administration presents regarding Playland’s future will have to address the jobs that the park has always afforded our residents, especially those who are saving for college,” said Borgia. “We are not simply going to hand Playland over to private interests without making sure that every single step forward is right for Westchester. This park is not dying, and county residents have long supported it. While it has been frustrating to see the missed opportunities of the last three years, Westchester residents should know that the Board of Legislators will take all necessary actions to protect Playland for the enjoyment and betterment of future generations while ensuring its financial viability.”
This year marks the 25th anniversary of Playland being awarded National Historic Landmark status.