Rye Town considering five options to run park

The Town of Rye is looking to orchestrate a similar deal the county made with Standard Amusements to run Playland.

TOWN OF RYE – Officials are once again seeking a contractor interested in running Rye Town Park, hoping to turn the struggling shoreline property next to Playland into a profit generator for the town.

For the third time in four years, the six-member Rye Town Park Commission has put out a request for proposals for an outside operator to run the 62-acre park, which includes Seaside Johnnies restaurant, a century-old administration building, a pay-as-you-go public beach, parking lot and other amenities.

Officials hope to see the park become a year-around destination, an idea some neighbors oppose.

Rye Town issued a request for bids, for private companies to operate Rye Town Park. Locals offer their opinions on the idea.

The park has routinely lost money and its buildings are deteriorating and in need of improvements that have been put off for years, Town Supervisor Gary Zuckerman said.

“In order to lose less money or make money, there needs to be a substantial investment in the park,” Zuckerman said. “The thought is to bring in some private money to work with the Rye Town Park Commission to make that happen.”

The town has issued a request for qualifications and asked potential operators for conceptual plans on how they would run the park. It received five responses, with ideas that include more food concessions, a catering hall and kiddie rides. (See proposal details at bottom of this article)

One of the companies interested is United Parks, which manages and has the same leadership as Standard Amusements, which already has a contract with Westchester County to manage Playland. Other potential operators are Biederman Redevelopment Ventures, the City of Rye, Caspi Development and Southwest Capital, Inc.

The park commission hopes to strike a deal similar to the one Westchester County made with Standard Amusements to run Playland. The town would maintain ownership of the property, with the operator responsible for day-to-day operations.

“Some of the same thought process that went into Playland’s deal went into doing this,” Zuckerman said.

Port Chester Mayor Dennis Pilla, a member of the commission, said his priority is maintaining public access to the 28 acres of Long Island Sound shoreline, known as Oakland Beach.

“I certainly want to make sure the beach, park and rental pavilions remain accessible,” Pilla said. “And I’ve been championing to ultimately make the park free for Rye Town and Rye City residents.”

Admission fees for the park range from $20 for seniors to $300 for families living Rye City and Rye Town residents, depending on the package. Non-residents permit fees cost between $50 and $330. Daily passes to the park and Oakland Beach are also available, at a range of fees.

Seaside Johnnies pays just under $100,000 a year to use its space, but the lease expires at the end of the year. The restaurant has said it wants to renew its lease.

Wedged between Playland and a residential neighborhood, several of the buildings on the property are considered historically significant.

Douglas Kooluris, owner of a wine store near Playland’s entrance, said neighbors seem to tolerate the seasonal traffic because they have the town park to themselves in the off season.

“It’s a trade-off,” Kooluris said. “Six months it’s open and six months it’s closed. That’s why they objected to something that was year round in Playland, like the ball fields.”

Douglas Kooluris, owner of G. Griffin Wine and Spirits, talks about Rye Town Park.

Rye resident Melanie Cane, who lives half a mile away from the town park, said she enjoys using it during the off-season.

“The summer is invasion time. The traffic is horrendous and the park is packed. But we knew that when we moved in,” said Cane, who was in the park on a recent weekday, training her puppy. “For the other seven or eight months, it’s our park.”

She said she’s against major changes. “This is our treasure, and the community will come out to defend it,” Cane said.

Kate Milano, who lives a block away, was walking through the park with her two dogs on a recent weekday, something she said she does routinely.

“Privatization could be a really good thing if they’re going to put the money back into the town and run things more efficiently, especially if the buildings are deteriorating,” she said. “But what is going to be the cost for the people around here?”

The Rye Town Park Commission is expected to discuss the RFQ responses at its April 19 meeting and will invite finalists in for presentations on May 17. The commission plans to make a final selection on June 21. Earlier efforts to find a private operator failed because of a lack of acceptable proposals.

A look at the proposals

United Parks (which manages Standard Amusements)

United Parks’ conceptual plan offered a range of uses for Rye Town Park that could be as simple as an upgraded food area to something as different as jet ski rentals and kiddie rides.

Because Oakland Beach in Rye Town Park and Playland Beach are separated by a chain-linked fence, United Parks Co-Owner Nick Singer said the 62-acre park could complement Playland’s operations.

“It’s logical to be under common management, given the contiguous nature of the property,” Singer said. “But we understand the two are separate and distinct properties.”

Biederman Ventures

Dan Biederman, who’s best known for revitalizing Bryant Park in New York City, wants to create revenue streams that would make the park self sufficient.

He outlined several analyses and studies to undertake — such as park usage, food and drink services, and existing revenue — and mentioned company sponsorships and park events in the conceptual plan.

“We believe that carefully developed revenue generation strategies will enhance the quality of the park in as dramatic a fashion as capital improvements,” he said in the proposal.

Biederman was hired by Westchester County in 2014 as a consultant to evaluate Playland. In his recommendations to the county at that time, he suggested incorporating Rye Town Park into Playland.

City of Rye

The city, which already partially owns Rye Town Park, wants to take over operational expenses and use revenues to fund capital improvements.

But the city has two representatives on the six-member Rye Town Park Commission that would make the final decision on who to choose to operate the park.

“It’s obvious the City of Rye wants to become the sole manager of the park, but it remains to be seen if there is a conflict of interest,” Zuckerman said.

Caspi Development, in conjunction with Integrated Building Management

Caspi Development included a greenhouse for educational purposes, health and fitness uses, banquet and event space, and tented cabanas on the beach with luxury chaise lounges in its plan. Caspi is asking for a 49-year deal, rather than a 20-year deal mentioned in Rye Town’s RFQ.

Southwest Capital

The owner of Southwest Capital, Salvatore Gizzo, managed and operated the Surf Club, a catering hall in New Rochelle, from 1992 until he sold it in December 2013. He included a catering hall as well as a fine-dining restaurant, snack bars and bathrooms in his plans for Rye Town Park.