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A Public Park, or a Commercial Enterprise, That Is the Question

Should Rye’s parklands have to turn a profit to survive? Or could they simply be restored to pastoral passive spaces for the enjoyment of all? Or must years’ more discussion of the potential impact of increased traffic and decreased quality of life in residential neighborhoods because of the threat of every imaginable variety of development and repurposing ensue?

 

By Robin Jovanovich

 

Should Rye’s parklands have to turn a profit to survive? Or could they simply be restored to pastoral passive spaces for the enjoyment of all? Or must years’ more discussion of the potential impact of increased traffic and decreased quality of life in residential neighborhoods because of the threat of every imaginable variety of development and repurposing ensue?

 

The idea of hiring an outside manager to run a park is not new. Back in 1983, after Marriott pulled out, Andy O’Rourke recommended that the County find a new entrepreneur group to manage Playland. Today, the County is set to sign a 30-year lease with Standard Amusements to take over management of the historic 272-acre amusement park. (County Legislator Catherine Parker is holding a public forum on the matter Tuesday, April 26 at 7 p.m. at City Hall.)

 

Right next door at Rye Town Park, the third iteration of an RFQ (Request for Qualifications) in four years, was sent out at the beginning of 2016. The Rye Town Park Commission, by unanimous vote, seeks potential interest from outside groups in managing all or some of 63-acre Park. Rye Town Supervisor Gary Zuckerman, who took office in January, was not the initiator of the recent process, which began in November 2015.

 

Zuckerman, in a phone interview this week, emphasized the fact that, while six proposals have been received from outside vendors this go-round, it doesn’t mean any of them will be accepted. One has already been withdrawn.

 

“My understanding is that this all grew out of the park losing money or making very little on operating expenses alone,” said Zuckerman. “Parks, historically, do not make money, but they need to be efficiently operated.

 

It’s worth noting that there has been little or no investment in Rye Town Park over the years and the current estimate for needed infrastructure repairs is close to $14 million.

 

“As the owner of the park,” said Zuckerman, “you have several choices. The first is: Do nothing regarding capital. Let the Administration Building and beach deteriorate; don’t replace the ramp that needs replacement; and don’t repair the Pavilions. Another choice is for the City of Rye and the Town of Rye (which are responsible for capital improvements at the park) to make the necessary investment. The third way is: bring in some private investment in to alleviate the potential tax burden.”

 

The Rye Town Park Commission chose the third option.

 

“The idea of bringing in events and sponsorships is worth examining. What if someone proposed putting in a beautiful playground or chess tables? Would there be anything wrong with holding a wedding or bar mitzvah in one of the park buildings?” Zuckerman asked.

 

“Don’t jump to conclusions. The course will ultimately be decided by the Commission, two of whose members are Rye City officials.”

 

At the regular Commission meeting this week in Port Chester, and at the special meeting of the Commission at Rye City Hall March 30, a number of residents questioned the RFQ process. No one was more outspoken than Mayor Joe Sack, a member of the Commission for over four years, who turned to Zuckerman at the start of the March 30 meeting and accused him of “not treating the City of Rye as partners; you’re not reaching out to us on this.” Mayor Sack went on to dismiss the Town of Rye: “The City of Rye is a bigger entity than the Town of Rye…. The Town almost voted itself out of existence last year.”

 

As the City of Rye is one of the six groups that responded to the RFQ, the relationship between City and Town may get more complicated. Mayor Sack proffered his view that the Commission should reject all responses to the RFQ other than the City’s. “I don’t like the connections with operators doing business with the County.”

 

Zuckerman responded, “Your innuendo is very Trumplike.”

 

At the end of a heated but not necessarily productive discussion, in which the Mayor seemed to be gunning for a fight, Mr. Sack did win on one important agenda item: The Commission tabled hiring a new Park Director at a salary of $25,000 more than was paid to the last Director.

 

Mayor Sack stressed that he wanted to ensure that Rye Town Park didn’t become “Playland South.” (Standard Amusements also submitted a proposal to manage the Park.) He opposed spending $10,000 to retain a company to appraise the RFQ’s, stating, “We can do this ourselves.”

 

In between the bickering at both meetings, a number of residents provided thoughtful comment and asked serious questions.

 

Howard Veisz, president of the board of Water’s Edge, the 76-unit complex just south of the Park, said, “There is a threshold question here, the public trust doctrine as it applies to parkland. Any commercial purposes are inherently inconsistent with maintaining the quality and character of the park.” He questioned why the Commission would even bother considering proposals that include catering facilities, ballrooms, and vacation lodges.

 

“I would hope that the Commission isn’t going down the path of considering these proposals based on momentum. Take time to pause,” Veisz counseled. “Taking public parkland and putting it in the hands of for-profit companies can’t be reconciled with public trust.”

 

Jamie Jensen, who lives across from Rye Town Park on Forest Avenue, asked the Commission several intrinsically important questions: “What is the mission of the park and are your managing to that mission in your budgeting? Who is this park intended to serve? And if it is the 45,000 people living in the Town of Rye, why are 92% of the beach users in the summer, non-residents?” 

 

She added, “If we want to reduce the use of green space and minimize noise, traffic, and trash in a residential neighborhood surrounding the park, what strategies are being proposed by those interested in becoming park operators? And by those applying for the park director job?”

 

After two lengthy meetings, very little was decided, other than to reduce the price of off-season permits for residents. The Commission plans to meet May 1 to iron out the RFQ process. The public is encouraged to attend the “Community Conversation” on Rye Town Park May 14 at 10 a.m. at the Park Pavilion.


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