By JIM FITZGERALD
RYE, N.Y. — A beloved but money-losing county-owned amusement park on prime shoreline outside New York City would be refreshed with a small water park, a fieldhouse, ballfields and a “Great Lawn” under a letter of intent signed Thursday.
The plan is to turn over Playland’s operations to a private partnership that would invest $34 million in capital improvements, pay Westchester County at least $1.2 million a year and end an annual drain on taxpayers estimated at $3 million to $5 million, said County Executive Robert Astorino.
Some of the park’s newer rides would come down to make room for the lawn, gardens and a vista of Long Island Sound. But the 84-year-old park’s best-known features — the wooden “Dragon” roller coaster, the old carousel, Kiddyland and a boardwalk featured in the Tom Hanks movie “Big” — would be retained.
Playland is the only art deco amusement park in America and is on the National Register of Historic Places.
Admission, including access to the Great Lawn, will be free. Fees will be charged for rides and other attractions, but no details were given at a news conference Thursday.
Playland will be “an amusement park first and foremost for families,” said Dhruv Narain, president of Sustainable Playland Inc., the new operator chosen after the county solicited proposals from developers.
His firm will contract with other companies to operate various areas of the park, he said. Among them is the company that operates Bryant Park in Manhattan.
Narain predicted hundreds of new jobs would be created.
Astorino said contracts should be finalized within 90 days. He said he hoped the new operator will be in place next year and predicted the park would begin taking on a new look as soon as next spring.
Astorino has been complaining for years about Playland’s impact on the county budget.
“It’s hard to make the case that an amusement park is an essential service” when revenues are down, he said at the news conference. But he also said, “Saving Playland has been a priority for me since the day I took office.”
He said the county will get $4 million up front and hopes to save $18 million by paying off the park’s debt, which had been accumulating, in 12 years.
He stressed that the county will continue to own the land during the expected 10-year management agreement.
“We’re not getting rid of any parkland,” he said.
But he said a new business plan was needed because attendance had fallen from 1 million a year in 2005 to 433,000 this year.
“We want to take it from a 90-day use with one season to a year-round destination,” he said.
Astorino, a Republican, said some aspects of the deal will require approval from the Democrat-dominated county Legislature. Majority Whip MaryJane Shimsky said the Legislature “has a lot of questions to be answered before public parkland is signed over to anyone. … We want to make sure it stays a park everyone can use.”