By Carol Tannenhauser
A tug of war is taking place between the two powerful stewards of Central Park, over one of its most popular attractions: Wollman Rink, at 63rd Street. Ultimately, the New York City Department of Parks & Recreation (Parks) has the power to determine who will get a new contract to run the iconic ice skating rink. The Central Park Conservancy (CPC) is arguing that it should be awarded to them.
On January 13th, a week after the Capitol Insurrection, Mayor Bill de Blasio cancelled all city contracts with the Trump Organization, including the one for Wollman Rink. The mayor said on MSNBC’s Morning Joe, “…the City of New York will no longer have anything to do with the Trump Organization. They have profited from these contracts. They will profit no longer.”
Now, the CPC — a nonprofit that has managed Central Park for the past 40 years — is contending that no for-profit group should get the Wollman Rink concession. It has put forth a proposal that Betsy Smith, president and CEO of the CPC, described in an email to supporters as “a long-term solution and…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.”
According to a spokesperson for the CPC, they have proposed to the city “a $50M minimum investment to take over management and increase public access…to facilities such as restrooms and concessions, and increase community programming in the off-season. Awarding the CPC the contract would also streamline operations for Central Park’s ice skating rinks, as the nonprofit is already overseeing a $150M restoration of Lasker Pool and Rink on the Harlem Meer. However, so far, the City has rejected the nonprofit’s offer in favor of a short-term approach that would award a five-year contract to a commercial operator, ultimately taking profits out of the park.”
The CPC is still in the running for the contract, along with private companies that have submitted other offers, but Parks has made it clear that the competitive bidding process will prevail.
The Parks Department notes that the Conservancy does not have experience operating an ice rink and that it had previously supported the competitive process to find a new operator. In fact, the Conservancy’s guidance had helped direct the request for proposals to run the rink — now it’s too late in the process to suddenly change course, Parks contends.
Mary Caraccioli, the CPC’s chief communications officer, told WSR that “at no point was the Conservancy involved in the development…of the RFP.” About a year and a half ago, it did perform a “conditions assessment” of the facility, she said, “to evaluate the feasibility of our taking on Wollman Rink and subsequently developed and shared a plan to do so.” Contrary to being late to the bidding process, she added that “the Conservancy confirmed our commitment to operating Wollman Rink in December 2020, well before the City released the RFP (in February 2021).”
As far as experience, Caraccioli said, “We have had discussions with many skating operators who would work with us to have Wollman open to the public well before the start of the new skating season in November.”
Money is also clearly a factor. The Trump Organization had paid the city $46 million to operate the rink over 18 years, and had also paid for millions in capital improvements. The city hadn’t had to contribute funds during the deal. The Conservancy’s plan would involve the nonprofit keeping half of the money, limiting how much the city could make from the concession, Parks argues.
“In discussing our interest with Parks, we offered to share the revenues with the city,” Caraccioli allowed. “In our proposal, all the revenues would be either re-invested into the care of Central Park, shared with other parks that the Conservancy helps across the city, or designated to the Parks budget.”
Furthermore, she concluded, “It is likely our prices would be lower (than during the Trump era), because we have no incentive to charge higher fees, we are not looking to make a profit. Additionally, there would be more access. We would have free and low-cost programming in the non-skating period and park-goers would have access to restrooms and restaurants without having to pay a fee to get into the building.”
“This is a once-in-a-generation planning opportunity,” writes Milstein, who led the CPC for four decades. “There is still time for the City to forego a for-profit operator.”
“This is not just about moving on from the newly-terminated concessionaire,” Brewer contends. “It is about the opportunity to choose a business model that supports the public good over the profit motives of a commercial operator who takes money out of the Park in the form of a return on investments. The Central Park Conservancy is a unique partner with a singular mission: to ensure the sustainability of one of the City’s most important public assets.”
As of Friday, Parks seemed unmoved. “Our goal is to have an experienced operator in place so that there is no disruption in this winter’s skating season at Wollman Rink,” a spokesperson told WSR. “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 having skating this winter at both Wollman and Lasker rinks, not just Lasker (which is undergoing renovations.) We received an amazing response to our competitive RFP process and there are a number of great contenders. The review process is ongoing.”