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November 21, 2019

Politics

Dragon Coaster fans on their way up the historic ride at Rye Playland. A legal challenge over future park management may just be starting, according to Standard Amusements.
Nicholas Singer, a graduate of Harrison High School, is a partner and co-founder of Standard Amusements, which is losing its management role at Playland due to alleged breaches of contract.
In 2015, former Westchester County Executive Rob Astorino announced there would be a new private manager for Playland Amusement Park, subject to approval by the county Board of Legislators.

Latimer: Private Playland Management Contract Took County Taxpayers On A Costly Ride

It's been a bumpy decade for Playland Amusement Park in Rye. But for now, the county-owned Playland Amusement Park will continue to be operated by public employees. 

This week, Westchester County Executive George Latimer of Rye announced an end to a 30-year contract that was negotiated with Standard Amusements during Rob Astorino's tenure as county executive.

While the private management ride may be over at Playland for Standard Amusements, the company vowed a costly court challenge may just be starting.

The management company said it has  spent more than $10 million to "restoring Playland to its former glory," with improved rides and food concessions at the 91-year-old landmark.

Playland will reopen for the summer season on May 11.

Latimer, in a press statement on Sunday, pointed to a faulty contract that he said put the private company's financial interests ahead of taxpayers, while noting Standard Amusements failed to deliver major upgrades at the county-owned park as promised in its longterm deal.

Astorino, a Republican from Mount Pleasant, had touted the Playland contract as one of his top accomplishments before his defeat by Latimer, a Democrat from Rye, in 2017. 

On Tuesday, April 30, Astorino told Daily Voice: "This is very disappointing. The Playland revitalization was negotiated in good faith and with unanimous bi-partisan support from the county Board of Legislators. It would save taxpayers tens of millions of dollars while improving the park for generations to come."

"Without it, the county taxpayer will be back on the hook for all repairs and upgrades, as well as for annual financial losses the park may incur. I strongly urge the county to reconsider its decision," Astorino said.

In his statement, Latimer said: "We are unhappy with the way this has all turned out; we never wanted this kind of conflict. However, we are simply not satisfied with what we have been seeing. We wanted to see the energy, excitement and drive in Standard Amusements’ vision for Playland — we didn’t want just a real estate deal."

Latimer gave 30 days' notice of the termination to the company, with May 28 set as the final day of the agreement. Standard Amusements was slated to take over management in November, under the contract approved by the county Board of Legislators.

In a press statement, Standard Amusements called Latimer's decision "deeply disappointing and devastatingly false," hinting at a possible court challenge.

"Standard Amusements’ perfectly valid conduct was never controversial under the prior (Astorino) Administration, and this move is nothing more than a means to improperly terminate a 30-year contract that was twice approved by super majorities of the Westchester Board of Legislators," the management company said. "It exposes taxpayers to hundreds of millions of dollars in losses from Playland’s extensive capital needs and needless litigation."

The company also accused the county of mishandling of food safety, failing to secure the historical wooden Dragon Coaster and installing proper fire suppression technology at the park. Standard has worked nine years and spent more than $10 million on "its mission to save Playland," the company said.

"Despite Mr. Latimer’s mismanagement and complete disregard for visitor safety, Standard Amusements remains more committed than ever to restoring Playland to its former glory," Standard's statement said. "By this action, the County Executive has chosen the worst path possible for Westchester County taxpayers, Playland, and Standard Amusements."

Last May, after a county review, Latimer released a report criticizing the terms of the deal, saying they were unfavorable to county taxpayers. 

In December, Westchester accused Standard Amusements of breaching terms of its contract; this year, Latimer promised a new, hopeful future for Playland in his annual State of the County address.

In Sunday's statement, Latimer said that Standard Amusements has failed to correct contract breaches.

The management company was supposed to spend more than $27 million on park improvements, but the Latimer Administration questioned its spending figures.

At the time of our letter to Standard Amusement, the company had claimed it invested over $5.7 million in the park, Latimer said, but an audit has proven otherwise. 

Instead, this money was spent on salaries, meals, travel, advertisements, marketing, consulting fees, and legal fees (including fees to raise investment capital it claimed to have at the time it negotiated the agreement with the County). Since receiving our December letter, Standard Amusements has continued to claim expenses that do not qualify as part of the Manager’s Investment (including its legal expenses related to our negotiations), for a total of $7.7 million according to its last monthly report, according to Latimer.

"My job is to make sure Westchester taxpayers come first," Latimer said. "The County’s relationship with Standard Amusements must come to a close. We cannot have confidence in Standard Amusements based on its actions."

Latimer hasn't met with Standard Amusements since November, the company claimed in its Sunday statement.

County Attorney John Nonna sent a memo to county legislators last month asking them to retain all Playland data and documents in case of a lawsuit.

The company also claimed Westchester didn't honor its part of the contract by missing a deadline to partially fund $30 million worth of construction projects.

Playland, which opened in 1928, is the nation's only publicly-owned amusement park. Attendance has lagged in recent years at the park, which has not installed a new ride in a decade.

Westchester County and Standard Amusements signed a modified deal in May 2016, making changes to the original agreement including adding a list of required capital projects. The contract outlined the amount of investment by the company and Westchester for a park that had fallen in severe disrepair and was further savaged by Superstorm Sandy. 

A plan to remove an old but popular pool near Playland's beachfront boardwalk was abandoned in favor of a plan to renovate the pool. But that change along reportedly spiked the county’s contribution of $30 million to well over that obligation. County parks experts now estimate that Playland needs more than $100 million in upgrades.

“This agreement has Westchester taxpayers on the hook for $125 million dollars with Standard committed for $27.5 million. My job is to make sure Westchester taxpayers come first. The County’s relationship with Standard Amusements must come to a close. We cannot have confidence in Standard Amusements based on its actions. The company has not proven it has been serious about Playland succeeding," Latimer said.

Republicans on the county Board of Legislators said they were disappointed in the move.

Minority Leader John Testa said he was "not surprised that the administration has taken this ill-advised action."

"Along with returning to past practice of having complete financial burden for Playland Park, Westchester taxpayers face a very costly and long litigation process that will end up costing Westchester millions.” Testa said on Monday.

Minority Whip Gordon Burrows of Yonkers asked all legislators "to join me in demanding the County Executive provide the legislative body with the reasons for his seeking to unilaterally void the existing contract and what directions he seeks to move Playland in the near future."

And county Legislator Margaret Cunzio of Mount Pleasant, said, “My concern is that to terminate the existing contract without a concrete plan of action presented to the public, taxpayers, as well as the board of legislators before terminating an approved contract is troubling."