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County Exec Outlines New Steps to Help Rye Playland

A 10-year contract with American Skating Entertainment Centers - to run the park's ice rink - is one move County Executive Rob Astorino hopes will help Rye Playland.

Photo: Rye Playland.
Photo: Rye Playland.

In the continuing effort to make Playland economically viable, Westchester County Executive Rob Astorino this week announced new initiatives designed to help the amusement park's finances.

The county, which operates the park, has retained American Entertainment Centers to run the ice rink at the facility, and hired urban space manager Dan Biederman to conduct a total park review.

Additionally, the beleaguered Sustainable Playland Inc., which has worked to help the park but has been criticized for some of its efforts, will "now concentrate on fund raising with a particular emphasis on ensuring money is available with respect to historic preservation and environmental conservation," according to Astorino.

Saving Playland, long one of the county's featured attractions, has become increasing important in recent years. In 2013, for example, the park "cost taxpayers $4.3 million ($1.3 million in operating losses and $3 million in debt service)," according to the county.

Below is the full press release from Astorino's office:

As part of the continuing effort to save Playland, Westchester County Executive Robert P. Astorino (Wednesday) announced several actions designed to improve the finances of the park and increase its attractiveness as a year-round destination.

American Skating Entertainment Centers, the largest independent owner/operator of ice rinks in the United States, whose year-round sports facilities include the Westchester Skating Academy in Elmsford, will become the new operator of the Ice Casino at Playland.

Dan Biederman, recognized internationally as a leader in privately funded urban and public space management, whose accomplishments include the restoration of Bryant Park in New York City, has been hired to do an “on the ground” review of the amusement park, which will include examinations of operations, factors contributing to profits and losses, and opportunities for sponsorships.

Sustainable Playland Inc. will continue to work with the county, but with a shift in focus. SPI will now concentrate on fund raising with a particular emphasis on ensuring money is available with respect to historic preservation and environmental conservation. The county, as it currently does, will retain full control over the operations of the entire 280-acre park.

“Everything we have learned in the last four years has pointed to the same conclusion,” said Astorino. “The long-term financial viability of Playland depends on finding ways to make the park a year-round destination. These latest moves reaffirm our approach to not only improve the amusement park, but also to create complimentary attractions that extend the season beyond the summer. The math is simple. More days and more activities mean more dollars to defray costs to taxpayers and invest in preserving the traditions of Playland.”

Last year, Playland cost taxpayers $4.3 million ($1.3 million in operating losses and $3 million in debt service).

The outline of the deal with American Skating calls for a 10-year contract, with an option to renew for an additional 10 years, that will pay the county an upfront payment of $300,000 the first year; a base payment $250,000 the second year, which will increase by 2% each year thereafter; and 25 percent of the gross revenue above $1.6 million annually.

In addition, American Skating will make $640,000 in capital improvements to the Ice Casino within the first 18 months of the contract. These capital improvements at American Skating’s expense will go largely toward refurbishing and modernizing the interior of the building with upgraded floors, lighting, electronics, bathrooms, locker rooms and guest services areas. These improvements are in addition to the approximately $4.5 million it will take to reopen the Ice Casino in September when repairing the damages caused by Superstorm Sandy will be completed.

 “American Skating Entertainment Centers is excited to be coming to Playland, especially at a time when we get to be part of the rebuilding and rebirth of the Ice Casino and the park,” said Shane Coppola, chairman and CEO of American Skating. “Our experience as one of the top ice rink operators in the country, as well as in Westchester, along with the great venue and team at Playland will be a winning combination for skaters at every level and their families.”

Biederman’s role will be to focus on current operations and future opportunities. He and members of his team will be in the park all summer looking for ways to improve revenue generation, cost control, and visitor experience. In addition, the team will explore strategic options for the park such as the selection of a private operator, the addition of new attractions and activities and the development of revenue generating sponsorships. In the fall, Biederman will present a list of recommendations on how best to secure Playland’s long-term future.

“The riddle for solving Playland is how do you make the park relevant in 2014 and still preserve its traditions and charms,” said Biederman, president of Biederman Redevelopment Ventures. “The answer is a combination of operational excellence, having enough money to invest in the future and a vision that positions your assets to excite patrons to want to visit the park for multiple reasons at multiple times throughout the year. The County Executive has put that framework in place. My job is to help tie it together by advising on tactical and strategic matters that will range from improving the financial performance at the park as it now exists to broadening the scope of experiences at the park in the future.”

In its new role, SPI will perform three advocacy functions: act as Playland’s chief private fundraiser, similar to what Friends of Parks does for all of the county’s parks; safeguard the historic nature of park and its traditions; and reach out to residents from around the county to promote their interests and voice their concerns with respect to the future of Playland.

“I want to thank the County Executive for his support,” said Kim Morque, president of Sustainable Playland Inc. “SPI and its volunteer members are proud of the work we have done in launching the vision for a reinvented Playland. We are enthusiastic about our new advocacy and fundraising role, as it will play to our strengths as a group of citizen volunteers. SPI cares deeply about Playland and will continue to work hard to preserve its past traditions and strengthen its financial viability in the future.”

Astorino thanked SPI and its members for their many contributions and looks forward to their continued involvement. 

The day-to-day operation of Playland will remain the responsibility of the county Park’s department for the remainder of this year. Whether that role changes won’t be decided until after the recommendations from the Biederman team are made. For the foreseeable future, the county will also deal directly with the park’s current vendors and partners, such as the Children’s Museum, and potential new operators. The asset management agreement the county had with SPI to operate the park will now lapse by mutual agreement. As such, the plans SPI had been making with operators (an Amusement Zone to be run by Central Amusement International and a Field Zone to be run by Playland Sports) are being withdrawn.

Astorino said he understood the frustration that many have that the reinvention of Playland has not moved faster, or been easier. He shares that frustration, but he stressed the important thing was to keep moving forward.

“There are a lot of competing dynamics involved, so it is not surprising that the path to success has not been a straight one,” Astorino said. “But we have made progress, and if we stay focused on finding ways to make the whole park more attractive to more people for more days out of the year, there is still time to find a formula that can secure the future of Playland.”

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