Photos courtesy of Westchester Parks unless otherwise noted
New managers look to create a fresh, bright future as they take control of the iconic park that’s a hub for history and memories galore.
As Playland Amusement Park reopens for the 2022 summer season after years of legal wrangling between the county and the park’s management company, Standard Amusements, what can Westchesterites look forward to?
Well, the new park managers are hoping for a smooth ride through many expected changes.
“We expect to be fully operational for the 2022 summer season, but it will be a bit of a transition year,” says Ernest Blundell, Playland’s new general manager. “There will be some new rides installed to ensure that visitors have a fresh and enjoyable experience, and there will be work taking place to make the changes to Playland that we promised.”
For those with short memories, those promises are part of a story that goes back to 2015, when Standard Amusements was picked to manage and operate the park as part of former County Executive Rob Astorino’s proposed public-private partnership for Playland. The deal was amended in 2016, but a year later, current County Executive George Latimer said he wanted to tear up the agreement with Standard, claiming the company had not met several requirements. That decision instigated a flurry of activity, including a bankruptcy filing by Standard, that only a lawyer could love.
In 2019, the County Board of Legislators approved plans and financing for improvements to the park, including the restoration of the park’s most famous and historic rides, the Carousel and Derby Racer. The 104-year-old Carousel was damaged in a fire in 2017, and the structure that houses the Derby Racer, which was erected in 1927, was rebuilt. Both rides are currently on the National Register of Historic Places.
The legislators also financed rehabilitation of the Playland tower; fixing up the shoreline, including work on the boardwalk, seawall, beaches, and bathhouse; projects to rehabilitate some of the structures along the midway; replacement of critical electrical infrastructure; rehabilitation of the administration building; work on railings, light posts and landscaping around the fountain plaza; and replacement of the bathhouse canopy. The work has all been part of a capital program that has stretched over the past four years.
In April 2021, the Board finally approved the bankruptcy court settlement with Standard Amusements. But the settlement was especially contentious. The agreement, approved 13-4 by the legislature, will reportedly give Westchester County and its taxpayers a share in any profits over $12 million. If Standard cannot earn at least $12 million in gross revenue per year for four straight years, the county can terminate the contract.
No one was fully pleased with the settlement. Legislator Catherine Parker, who represents Rye, called it “rushed,” and Law and Major Contracts Chair Legislator Nancy Barr admitted it “might not represent the dream contract we would have negotiated if we were starting from scratch.” Legislator Jose Alvarado (D-17, Yonkers), a former chair of the Parks Committee and current majority whip, voted for the deal but with serious reservations. Alvarado said that legislators were ordered to negotiate by the bankruptcy judge, but noted that he would have preferred for them to get out of the deal Astorino made.
“The reality is that Playland is a beautiful county jewel that should be preserved and property-managed internally,” says Alvarado. “Any revenue generated there should remain with the county and not with an outside profit-making management company. Unfortunately, the opportunity to get out of a bad deal was never on the table once the case hit the courts.”
Still, the bankruptcy agreement gave the county more oversight and better financial terms than the original agreement did, according to Jason Chervokas, director of communications for the Westchester County Board of Legislators. But now, the park’s operation is in Standard’s hands alone. “As a legislature, we’re not directly involved in the day-to-day operations, so I can’t speak to the questions about plans for this season,” Chervokas says, adding that the Board planned to meet with Standard Amusements officials in April as part of its oversight responsibility.
Alvarado is hopeful, but still has some doubts. “I do hope that the management company coming in does what it promised. I love Playland, and I am hoping for a fun season, but I’m not so sure it will happen,” he says. “Elections have consequences, and Playland ended up being a casualty of one.”
Meanwhile, former County Executive Astorino, who was behind the initial public-private partnership deal, is currently a Republican candidate for governor. Calls and messages left for him at his Westchester campaign office were unreturned.
Westchester County Communications Director Catherine Cioffi issued a statement calling Playland Park “a crown jewel of the County, and that is why County Executive George Latimer made it a top priority to reinvest in the Park — more so than any other recent County Executive.” Cioffi’s statement went on to say that the county is investing more than $125 million on the infrastructure needs of the park. “We are looking forward to the summer months, when the children of Westchester County will be making memories at Playland once again.”
Blundell says Standard has had “very little time for upgrades” before the season was scheduled to open in late May. But he adds there will be “massive redevelopment” over the next five years. “We are at the starting line of this five-year restoration-and-rejuvenation project, and we expect, as with any project of this size, there may be hiccups along the way. We will do our best to ameliorate them.”
He also says there will be some new rides installed, “to ensure that visitors have a fresh and enjoyable experience,” while work on larger projects continues. “We will be completely transparent about the nature of the work taking place,” states Blundell, “and we are excited for everyone to begin to get a glimpse of the new Playland.”
“There will be some new rides installed to ensure that visitors have a fresh and enjoyable experience, and there will be work taking place to make the changes to Playland that we promised.”
—Ernest Blundell, Playland’s new general manager
Playland began staffing up for the season in March by holding job fairs to fill positions. Blundell encouraged everyone to spread the word about job opportunities, especially to college students seeking summer employment. The long-term food-and-beverage programming at the park, however, has not been fully developed yet.
“Given the nature and full scope of this project, we expect there to be challenges,” he acknowledges. “Even the best plans have deviations. We cannot plan for everything, and, as mentioned, some of the historical structures at Playland are original to the 94-year-old park and require very special care. There are a lot of moving parts, which could cause challenges in rolling out things along the way.”
Blundell says that the company will work with the county to find solutions and move forward in the best interests of Playland. “The public-private partnership that is the redevelopment of Playland will touch every part of this treasured park,” he says, calling the park’s redevelopment “a once in a century” project. “Given the historic nature of the park and rides, considerable care is being given to each aspect of this project. During that time, Standard Amusements and the county have agreed to keep it fully open to the public, and there may be inevitable inconveniences at times. That said, we will work our hardest to deliver the best visitor experience possible.”