The Westchester County Board of Legislators held “the first” public information session on the four proposals for Playland that were finalists in the County Executive’s RFP process.
By Robin Jovanovich
The Westchester County Board of Legislators held “the first” public information session on the four proposals for Playland that were finalists in the County Executive’s RFP process. In trade show style inside the County Center in White Plains, the four vendors — Central Amusement, Standard Amusement, Legoland, and Sustainable Playland Inc. — provided information and answered questions on their plans to reinvent the 1928 County-owned amusement park.
The fact that County Executive Rob Astorino signed a letter of intent with Sustainable Playland, the Rye-based nonprofit, back in October, wasn’t addressed at the session. Board of Legislators Chair Ken Jenkins said in emails to County residents, “The County Board has not made any determination that any of the proposals are right for Westchester. The majority of Legislators are willing to listen to all the proposals, and then make a decision.”
The fact that Legoland was not among the finalists in the RFP process was also not addressed.
On Wednesday night, hundreds of interested residents mixed and mingled with County officials and representatives of the four plans from 6:30 to 8 p.m. Before introducing representatives from the four groups, Government Operations Committee Chair Catherine Borgia (D-Ossining) explained the reason for the event. “The Board of Legislators takes its job very seriously and thought, at this critical juncture, that we needed to open this up to the public. We wanted to make sure we had the chance to educate the public on the proposals.” She added, “This is not the end of the process. It will be a collaborative process moving forward.”
Many could argue that it has been a collaborative process with the Board of Legislators from the start. The County Executive put together a 17-member citizen’s committee to review the requests for proposal. Among them were Democratic legislators Judy Myers and Bill Ryan, and Republican legislator Sheila Marcotte.
In an interview after the forum, Ned McCormack, the County Executive’s Communications Director, said, “We didn’t make this up. We had three legislators on the citizen’s committee, and the Board of Legislators was involved from the start.” McCormack added, “Taking politics out of this, all of the vendors deserved serious consideration and received it. Playland is a unique problem. SPI is the only applicant that’s a true civic/private partnership. We have confidence in the operators they have brought in, especially Dan Biederman, who restored Bryant Park, and has helped many private groups do remarkable park restoration.”
In response to the comment that many members of the board of Legislators have questioned the strength of SPI’s funding, McCormack said, “The individual operators have agreed to put up $25 million and SPI will provide over $8 million. Once you create an inviting space, commerce will come.”
At the forum, lengthy presentations by the four vendors were followed by a question and answer period. (Questions were not taken from the audience directly, but drawn from handwritten ones submitted, mostly anonymously, earlier.)
While it was hard to miss supporters of Sustainable Playland, as many held up support placards and loudly applauded the plan during the course of the evening, according to Mr. Jenkins, “Legislators on both sides of the aisle have serious questions about the SPI proposal.” Those questions, however, were not addressed at the public forum.
Meanwhile, Tania Pope of Paidia Company, representing Legoland, explained that they were “one of the 11 or 12 proposals from the beginning.” She continued in stream-of-consciousness style: “We thought big, bold. Do you think about architecture or the smiles on the kids’ faces, the joy, what the park has meant for children… Education has been talked about quite often in the last few years. Best way to do that is to put kids first. Legos are nostalgia. This is an educational toy everyone can relate to….”
While the audience watched a video showing a Legoland hotel opening in Carlsbad, California, an aquarium, their parks in Florida and Malaysia, the happy experience of children 2-12 at these parks, Ms. Pope kept going back to the fact that “we have to do something for the children. They [Legoland] do children and they do it best.”
The trouble was that few in the audience could relate to a Legoland — at a cost of $150 million — in a small National Landmark park, especially since their plan doesn’t include preservation of any of the historic rides or buildings. In fact, they’ll raze them. So much for nostalgia.
Central Amusements, which was one of the four finalists, operates Luna Park at Coney Island and Victorian Gardens, a children’s amusement area in Central Park. They are in turn owned by Zamperia, which makes amusement rides. Their aim is to “refresh” Playland and introduce new and exciting attractions, 22 over a five-year period. Central has considerable experience restoring older parks and rides. They point to their restoration of the Cyclone roller coaster at Coney Island as one notable example.
In addition to creating a new water-play area and expanding the mini-golf attraction, Central proposes adding a children’s entertainment center, which will provide high-end daycare. They also promise to put 5 percent of their annual investment into preservation of the historic park.
Standard Amusement, the runner-up to SPI in the County Executive’s process, was represented by Nick Singer, co-founder of Standard General, an investment fund in New York City, which manages over $500 million and is willing to invest $25 in the park.
Singer, a Harrison native, said he is passionate about Playland. “We’re not looking to radically alter the park. It needs new rides, not thrill rides. We’re going to improve public spaces too.”
In response to the view that the amusement park industry is unhealthy, Singer said, “There is nothing wrong with the business today. It just suffers from under-investment.”
Standard’s plan is to extend the season, at least through Halloween, get rid of Burger King and offer better food, and provide some free community assets — four playing fields and a community lawn. (In its initial proposal, Standard did not include playing fields.)
Kim Morque, president of Sustainable Playland, Inc., detailed their group’s plan to reinvent the park as a true public/private partnership. He pointed to Dan Biederman, who will manage the overall operation. “Dan is a leader in park redevelopment,” he noted. Mega Funworks, which has a successful record operating amusement parks, one in Fishkill, is on board, as is American Skating Entertainment as the ice rink operator. Playland Sports will run both the indoor and outdoor facilities. The Westchester Children’s museum has been part of SPI’s proposal from the start.
“SPI is poised to bring families back to Playland,” Morque continued. “We have a broad base of support. If you value history, the environment, we offer more park, more play.”
As the crowd slowly filtered out, there were lots of positive comments on the presentations, but residents were left wondering: how much longer the process would take and how many of the applicants were still in the running.
Board of Legislators Chair Jenkins told the paper: “Next steps are to have an outside auditor review the proposals to provide an apple-to-apple comparison from a financial viewpoint.” He added, “Some vendors have asked to return to the Committee with updated info. We will keep you posted.”