Westchester County has shelved its plan to put up outdoor advertising from Yonkers to Yorktown along Westchester’s North County and South County trailways.
Deputy Parks Commissioner Peter Tartaglia announced the county’s decision on Friday, two weeks after Tax Watch revealed that a politically connected Putnam County company, Bikepath Country, had been selected to sell advertising on mile-markers along 36 miles of Westchester parkland, and 11 miles in Putnam.
“Our trailways are used by hundreds of thousands system-wide requiring constant maintenance and public private partnerships help to relieve the financial burden on taxpayers,” the statement said. “As such we will continue to assess any new and innovative support opportunities that frequently come our way. While we have decided not to enter into a pilot agreement with Bike Path County at this time, we will continue to do our due diligence of addressing the needs and concerns of park users and associated costs.”
The demise of Westchester’s signage program comes as Putnam’s debate has escalated over putting up corporate logos along the trailways that run through Putnam forests from Mahopac to Brewster. On Wednesday, Bikepath County Vice President Rich O’Keefe, a former Carmel Town councilman, doubled down on the deception that the company has a contract to sell sign sponsorships in Pinellas County, Florida.
County Legislator Catherine Borgia, D-Ossining, who had called parks officials before the Westchester Government Operations Committee three days after the Tax Watch report, lauded the county decision. A private nonprofit group, Friends of Westchester Parks, had struck a deal with Bikepath Country, but it still needed approval from the Astorino administration before moving forward.
“It’s so helpful when you shine the light on these things,” Borgia said. “We need more light.”
The Bikepath Country ads would comprise no more than 10 percent of the sign’s surface area, On a sign the size of an 8.5 x 11 piece of paper, the ad would be a strip, 1.1 inches high. Bikepath Country maintains it could sell these ads for $200 to $400 a month, year-round.
Putnam County Legislator Dini LoBue, R-Mahopac, said Putnam needs to follow Westchester’s lead and reject the concept, in which the county would receive a portion of the ad revenue, after expenses from the private company were covered.
“I think it speaks volumes that Westchester rejected it, just like Florida has rejected it,” LoBue said. “The concept is fundamentally flawed.”
Bikepath Country, meanwhile, stepped up its campaign to secure a foothold for its ads in the Putnam woods. That campaign featured O’Keefe, a former Carmel Town councilman, telling the county Legislature on Wednesday it had a contract with Pinellas County, Florida.
“We have a contract with Pinellas County right now,” said O’Keefe, a former Carmel police officer, before the county Legislature’s Physical Services Committee.
But Mary Burrell, spokesman for Pinellas County, told Tax Watch on Thursday that the county had no contract with Bikepath Country. A parks official two weeks ago told me the same thing.
“Nothing has changed,” said Burrell. “Neither party has signed anything. There has been no contract executed.”
In late May, Bikepath Country President Ivan Bellotto acknowledged that his company had not conducted sign sponsorship programs since 2012 in either Tallahassee or Pinellas County, as asserted in his submission to Putnam County in response to a Request for Proposals for such a program here. The company was the sole respondent to the RFP.
Neither O’Keefe nor Bellotto, owner of Camp Kiwi in Mahopac, returned phone messages Friday.
“It’s a real problem to have a company vying for a county contract, which has falsified their proposal,” said LoBue. “Shouldn’t the contract be denied on those grounds alone? Something here really stinks.”
Legislator Sam Oliverio, D-Putnam Valley, sees no need for the corporate signage in the forests that are bisected by the Trailway.
“I don’t want to see billboards on our bikeway,” he said. “I don’t see why we need these signs.”
Chamber of Commerce President Jenn Maher complained that pedestrians and cyclists who use the trailway don’t spend enough money here while enjoying the solitude of the Putnam Trailway.
“We can leverage the people who come here to spend money in our community,” she said. “It’s all about supporting the business community.”
But Mahopac resident Gerry Ranvitsky said the county needed to preserve the natural world and keep it free from commercialism.
“It’s absolutely improper,” he said. “It’s like selling your soul. And for such a minimal amount of money.”
Revelations about Bikepath Country’s misrepresentations come as Putnam considers whether to contract with a private company with no track record to sell outdoor advertising on signs along one of the region’s premier paved trailways for pedestrians and cyclists.
The company is closely tied to Putnam County Republican circles.
O’Keefe’s sister, Suzi McDonough, a Carmel Town Council member, is chief of staff of state Sen. Greg Ball, R-Patterson. Another O’Keefe sister, Lynn Schmidt, spoke in favor of the trailway ads on Wednesday. She is the ex-wife of Carmel Town Supervisor Ken Schmidt, who has yet to issue a public statement on the issue. Putnam’s tourism director Libby Pataki, the wife of former Gov. George Pataki, has promoted the company before the county legislature.
O’Keefe in February, 2012 approached the town of Carmel’s Recreation and Parks Advisory Board with a proposal to sell advertising on signs in town parks and recreational fields, with the town receiving 20 percent of the proceeds. The proposal was never adopted.
In Westchester, the county’s Department of Parks, Recreation and Conservation had turned over its signage program to Friends of Westchester Parks, which had a deal with Bikepath Country to put up ads on mile markers every half-mile. The county would receive 30 percent of the ad revenues, after expenses incurred by Bikepath Country.
In Putnam, the county would receive 50 percent of ad revenues, after expenses for the signs’ manufacture. The county has yet to sign a contract with Bikepath Country. But that hasn’t stopped County Executive MaryEllen Odell from co-hosting an event on Monday at Putnam County Golf Course in Mahopac, to showcase the sign sponsorship program to potential advertisers. An invitation obtained by Tax Watch indicates that Bikepath Country, Putnam County, and Odell will “present an innovative & groundbreaking way to enhance the beauty & safety of your trails.”
It adds: “Exclusive & unique sponsorship opportunities will be available.”
The invitation includes the Putnam County seal, the logo from the Putnam Tourism Office, the Greater Mahopac-Carmel Chamber of Commerce, Brewster Chamber of Commerce, and Putnam County Chambers of Commerce.
“It’s a good idea to have this for local businesses,” said Odell. “But nobody is trying to force this.”
The county tourism office, an independent agency, is run by Libby Pataki. She has been promoting Bikepath Country’s outdoor advertising program since July, 2012, when she appeared before the county Legislature’s Economic Development Committee, according to committee minutes.
Also promoting the signage program is Aimee Cunningham, owner of the Terrace Club, one of Mahopac’s top restaurants on the shores of Lake Mahopac. In a recent Facebook posting by Maher, of the Putnam County Chambers of Commerce, Cunningham says she’s looking forward to putting up Terrace Club ads.
What Cunningham fails to state is that her husband, Steve Smith, is one of Bikepath Country’s partners and serves as the corporation’s secretary, according to its county submission.
“The signs are to support the local business community and some of the money goes to the up-keep of the bike trails and restoration for our people in the community who use the bike trails,” Cunningham wrote in Maher’s posting. “It’s a “win-win” for local businesses who want to advertise, encourage people to shop “local” and for users of the bike trails who will appreciate the maintenance of the trails, b/c there are not being maintained now. I can’t wait to put up a Terrace Club sign to advertise for my business and know that I was responsible for a trail I use recreationally.”
Photo: Bikepath Country co-founders Rich O’Keefe, left, and Ivan Bellotto, right, stand with the mock-up of a Trailway sign with advertising. The ad on the sample is much larger than the ad program now under consideration, which would allow the ad to be more more than 10 percent of the sign area. Photo/David McKay Wilson