Central Park Conservancy Pushes for Wollman Rink Control, Shares Proposal with Public

Back in early February, after deciding to terminate the Trump Organization’s contracts for Wollman Rink, the City put out calls for bids from prospective new operators.

But before that (late last year), the Central Park Conservancy submitted its own proposal for a different model. While the organization has yet to hear back from the City, they’ve now shared their proposal with the public.

The Conservancy proposed to “raise and invest a minimum of $50 million dollars to rebuild the rink and operate it with a new focus on expanded public access and community programming.”

In an email from the Central Park Conservancy, President and CEO Betsy Smith references the organization’s current efforts at Lasker Rink and Pool, stating that they would also “seek to provide better access to restrooms and food concessions and free summer programming at Wollman.”

In the email, Smith also asserts benefits the City would gain through a partnership with a non-profit organization.

“Our proposal is a long-term solution and, we believe, a sounder financial and social alternative to the City’s approach to award a short-term contract to a commercial operator which will prioritize its own profitability over the public’s interest.”

Manhattan Borough President Gale Brewer agrees with this sentiment, and has been fully supportive of the Central Park Conservancy’s bid to operate Wollman Rink. In a February 4 letter from Brewer to Mayor de Blasio, she wrote that “The City now has an opportunity to consider a new model so that these important City assets are managed first and foremost for the benefit and enjoyment of New Yorkers, not for the profit of individuals or private business.”

Brewer’s letter also recognized that “The Conservancy invests over $70 million a year in the maintenance of the Park and over the last 4 decades has invested hundreds of millions of dollars of philanthropic dollars into the Park. Unlike any other private vendor, the Conservancy does not have a profit motive; its sole mission is to maintain and improve the Park in perpetuity.”

However, a spokeswoman from the NYC Parks Department told Patch that “[Their] goal is to have an experienced operator in place so that there is no disruption in this winter’s skating season at Wollman Rink. The most dependable way to do that is through our competitive process. If we’d gone the route of exploring a sole source agreement with the Central Park Conservancy we would have run a serious risk of not have skating this winter at both Wollman and Lasker rinks, not just Lasker.” The spokeswoman continued to state that they “received an amazing response to their competitive RFP process and there are a number of great contenders. The review process is ongoing.”

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Former Central Park Conservancy chairman Ira Millstein sent a recent follow-up letter to Mayor de Blasio, hoping it would be persuasive enough to get them the contract.

Dear Mayor de Blasio,

This is a critical moment for the City and the Park we love. Central Park has provided millions of New Yorkers across all five boroughs with a much-needed place for respite over the past year, thanks to the dedication of the City’s long-time partner and day-to-day manager of the Park, the Central Park Conservancy.

The Conservancy first stepped up for New York City in 1980. It was founded on the heels of the City’s near bankruptcy to rescue the derelict Park, then marred by the dustbowl of the Great Lawn and graffiti-covered historic buildings. It took the Conservancy 40 years and close to $1 billion dollars in private philanthropy to restore the great Olmsted and Vaux open space which serves New York’s diverse neighborhoods, and which is now a cultural gem.

Since the very beginning, I have personally witnessed the organization’s tremendous dedication to this effort, completely transforming the Park and keeping it clean, beautiful, and accessible for its 42 million visitors every year. The City now has the opportunity to leverage this historically successful partnership to further benefit the public at Wollman Rink.

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Upon your decision to conclude the decades-old concession agreement with the Trump Organization, Wollman needs a new operator. This is a once-in-a-generation planning opportunity. The Central Park Conservancy has proposed a minimum investment of $50 million dollars to re-envision and rebuild Wollman and manage the site with a sharp new focus on expanded public access and community programming.

As early as June of 1981, the approach of having nonprofit partners, rather than private concessionaires, manage public facilities like Wollman was endorsed in a New York Times editorial entitled “Thin Ice in Central Park.”

That editorial warned of serious compromises when public property is forced to meet the needs of private operators. Unfortunately, the City is ignoring that warning again; it has put aside the Conservancy’s current proposal and is taking a short-term view by seeking a five-year contract for Wollman with a for-profit operator, which will prioritize its branding opportunity and take profits out of the Park.

There is still time for the City to forego a for-profit operator. It should turn again, as it has in the past, to the Central Park Conservancy, which would coordinate Wollman with the Lasker Rink on the Harlem Meer. Wollman and Lasker have always been operated jointly, which is what the Conservancy is offering to continue.

The Conservancy is about to start reconstruction on Lasker, to which it has committed $100 million to augment the City’s $50 million investment. The Conservancy has now offered to raise millions of dollars for the planning, reconstructing, and operation of Wollman in a longer-term agreement that ensures that the rinks remain tied together and allows all profits to be reinvested back into the Parks system. It also promises to re-envision the eight-month, non-skating season, filling the site with free or low-cost cultural performances from across the City.

Many public agencies do not have experienced and professional not-for-profit partners to turn to. But here you do. The Conservancy’s capacity to do what it promises is demonstrated by its continuously successful stewardship of the Park and its ongoing commitment to managing this public space.

The wisdom of prioritizing the Park as a public amenity for all is as applicable today as it was in 1981. I ask that you act wisely: forego profit-making in Central Park and continue to put the public first by accepting the Conservancy’s offer of continued stewardship and transformational investment.




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