When County Executive Rob Astorino strode to the podium at the Ritz Carlton on Friday night, supporters of the Westchester Children’s Museum hoped that this was the occasion for a major breakthrough in the 13-year campaign to build the attraction.
It was the perfect moment. About 400 well-heeled supporters from across the county were at the fundraising gala at the swank White Plains hotel, with partygoers using an app on their mobile phones to bid on paintings, spa adventures and signed books by Hillary and Bill Clinton.
The county in October, 2012 had completed its $6-million renovation of the North Bathhouse at Playland Park, making the site ready for the Museum’s investment of an additional $9 million of private funding to create a centerpiece for the Playland beachfront, and a key attraction in Astorino’s reinvention of the seaside park.
The press alert for the event, which raised close to $200,000 for the White Plains-based nonprofit, promised that Astorino would “make a special announcement at 8:27 p.m.”
There was a buzz around the room about Astorino’s forthcoming announcement during cocktail hour, as New Rochelle Mayor Noam Bramson, Astorino’s opponent in November; District Attorney Janet DiFiore; and Deputy County Executive Kevin Plunkett made the rounds.
Was the Mount Pleasant Republican going to make an election-year declaration, and win the room that night?
Would he call museum board President Corinne Zola to the podium to hand her the North Bathhouse keys?
Would Astorino, in true Republican spirit, give the private sector its chance to leverage the county’s investment of taxpayer dollars that had been collecting dust since its project was completed in October?
Astorino made in-roads with the museum crowd by appearing at the gala. And he won applause by declaring that “a strong and successful Playland needs a strong and successful Children’s Museum.”
But he didn’t hand over the keys. And he ended his speech, saying “Yes, the Children’s Museum is almost home.”
“Almost” may count in bocce, but Astorino’s pronouncement fell flat among many in the room, as they hovered about the dessert table. While museum backers were pleased that Astorino had finally embraced their plan, they expressed disappointment that he continued to hold the museum hostage to the Sustainable Playland deal.
“He came up short,” said Marc Oxman, a member of the Children’s Museum board.
The gala’s honoree, Ray Quartararo, the construction executive leading the $1 billion renovation of Madison Square Garden, was quite blunt in his remarks.
“Our construction documents are complete, and we are ready to invest $6 million in the building, with another $3 million for exhibits,” he said. “I challenge you to work together with us, and let us begin to build today.”
Doing so wouldn’t cost the county a cent, which would fit into Astorino’s penny-pinching persona. But the Museum’s need to move forward has not jibed with Astorino’s grander vision for Playland – plans that he designed and weren’t begun, as was the museum, under the auspices of his predecessor.
Astorino wants to privatize operation of the park, turning over management of the complex to the nonprofit, Sustainable Playland, Inc., which would build a field house and three outdoor playing fields, cut down on the number of rides in the amusement park, and create a Great Lawn along Long Island Sound. The museum will help make Playland a year-round destination, and attract the public dollars now crossing the state line into Connecticut on scores of school field trips to the Stepping Stones Museum for Children in Norwalk, Ct.
Earlier in the day on Friday, Astorino held a press conference on the Playland boardwalk, to cut the ribbon on the rebuilt section of the walkway, which had been damaged in Superstorm Sandy. I asked Astorino about the museum, the county’s investment of $6 million, and the museum’s desire to start their project now.
The museum, he said, was part of the bigger plan with Sustainable Playland. One would not proceed without the other. He called on the county Board of Legislators to approve his comprehensive package, which would include the museum plan.
“It could all move forward by October,” Astorino said.
That may be wishful thinking. Legislators have raised serious questions about Astorino’s privatization deal. They will hold a press conference tomorrow at Playland detailing their concerns. A decision on Sustainable Playland seems unlikely anytime soon.
In 2003, Gov. George Pataki signed state legislation enabling the Westchester Board of Legislators to lease the North and South bathhouse to the Westchester Children’s Museum for up to 30 years. A decade later, the museum is still waiting to build. And its $9 million in private investment for the construction and operation of the museum remains on ice.
Photos from the Westchester Children’s Museum gala/ David McKay Wilson
1. Westchester Children’s Museum President Corinne Zola, left, introduces Westchester County Executive Rob Astorino, with honoree Ray Quarteraro center.
2. Zola, right, with Westchester County District Attorney Janet DiFiore.
3. Deputy County Executive Kevin Plunkett, right, with Sustainable Playland President Kim Morque, and his wife.
4. Children’s Museum board member Marc Oxman