Central Park Conservancy Fights for Control of Wollman Rink and to Eliminate For-Profit Contracts

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.”

Icy negotiations. Photo by Steve and Sara.

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.”

The rink in 1963. Photo courtesy of Robyn Roth-Moise.

Strong letters from Ira Milstein, the former president of the CPC’s board of directors, and Gale Brewer, currently Manhattan Borough President, urge Parks to reconsider.

“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.”

NEWS, OUTDOORS | 23 comments | permalink
    1. Friend of the Park says:

      The elephant in the…blog I guess (?) is that the Conservancy has a reputation for using Central Park and associated public park facilities just for its donors. The way they take ownership of and make money on behalf of CP I could image them pushing to privatize and consolidate under the Conservancy during the next big financial crisis. I’d almost prefer the state to manage it.

      • UWS Dad says:

        Central Park is the most precious resource our great city has, thanks solely to the Central Park Conservancy and its donors. The park was run-down and dangerous prior to them taking over, and now it is an oasis that people from all 5 boroughs and all over the world flock to.

    2. Agreed, Wollman Rink should be in the hands of the The Central Park Conservancy (CPC)‼️

    3. Annie says:

      I don’t understand these comments re: CPC taking over the skating rinks. If their reputation is for satisfying their donors ahead of the rest of us NYers, then why would it be a good deal for the City and for non-donors to support CPC?

      • Anthony says:

        Why would you believe such s statement. Do you know what it means?

        I don’t. The rink and park are open to everyone. No one’s checking IDs. The Park was a dangerous dump before the CPC took over management. Now it’s amazing.

        Someone mentioned some5ing about using the tennis courts and CPC getting preference. Ok, if trye fix that. I mean how many people want to use the tennis courts versus using the park? Probably less than .001% of park visitors.

    4. HH says:

      Who said the CPC has a reputation for prioritizing donors? What does that even mean – the park is free for everyone.

      Central Park used to be a total dump. The grass was brown, the park full of garbage, the building dilapidated, the foliage overtaken by weeds, the paths dangerous. It is now the nicest large public space in all of New York by a landslide, largely thanks the CPC. Why the hate?

    5. denton says:

      People forget that the city couldn’t run the rink before the trump contract. They couldn’t fix the engineering issues. Now, I’m in no way shape or form a Trump fan, but what he did was tap into the engineering expertise in his organization and send his best engineer, a gentle Irish poet and real gentleman, Joe Morrisey, to fix this mess that existed. And fix it he did. So, if we support the ‘public good’ instead of bring in a for profit experienced real estate operator, it’s all gonna go down the toilet. You heard it first right here.

      • chuck d says:

        There were a lot of Trump/mob-related shenanigans going on with that deal that enabled Trump to come in and play savior. One day the real story will be told.

    6. Jake says:

      Probably not the best time to do away with a private public partnership like the one set up now when the City needs all the money it can get…and I’m sure the Park Dept currently collects more in annual rent than the operator of the rink profits after factoring in what must be enormous expenses.
      Wollman would be pretty easy to screw up in the wrong hands. Best to keep it with or award it to a group with deep pockets who are looking for a vanity project.

    7. AC says:

      Anyone who uses Central Park or Riverside Park knows that the Central Park Conservancy is a pay to play scam. Whether it’s the tennis courts or the softball fields, it’s who you know and how much you donate that gets you an opening. This subject matter was covered a couple of years ago when access to the tennis courts was becoming a growing issue.

      Regarding the Rink, should have just left it in Trump’s hands. Anyone who remembers the past knows what happened when the city ran it.

      • Michael M says:

        Curious by what you mean by pay to play? Having gone through the process before, the parks department runs and permits the tennis courts in central park and they also runs the permits for the softball and baseball fields. Central Park Conservancy doesn’t handle either ….

        • uwsmom says:

          Correct Michael. CPC does not give donors priority for usage of Parks facilities. Sometimes they are holding fundraisers in public spaces, but it is few and far between and those are what help pay the bills to keep the park in the beautiful shape it’s in now. They are a very efficient, streamlined organization with people who want every NYer to have access to outdoor space.

    8. Wollman mom says:

      As someone who cares deeply for Wollman Rink I would say the best solution would be to let the CPC take over with the contingency that they hire an experienced rink management company to operate the rink. That’s what they do in Bryant Park. Best of both worlds. The conservancy’s money and commitment and people who know how to run and maintain ice rinks. And to all those that believe Trump is still a savior, he has been milking that story ever since, made millions off the rink and barely maintained the facilities. They are dated and in desperate need of many capital updates and repairs, which most likely won’t get done by awarding a private operator only a 5 year contract.

    9. Claire DesBecker says:

      The Conservancy exists because it’s donors donate and volunteer. No one has ever been denied access. The Rinks, especially Wollman, have a cost factor for enjoyment. As the Conservancy dies not operate for profit, this is the best answer. Parks are for all people and can be administered with the public in mind without a for-profit business in control. Excellent concept. The return of profits to the parks is a wonderful idea and a financially sound idea. Why should it be othewise?

    10. Fran Quittel says:

      As someone who writes about the Park and its “magic”, the Wollman rink – and Lasker too – are important resources for MANY that require financial support and also generate income. The Conservancy has been instrumental in the restoration of the Park and its pre-eminent role in the lives not just of New Yorkers but of all who love urban public parks. This article is interesting. I would like to see a solution that speaks to the importance of urban public parks and Central Park’s pre-eminent role, where there is respect for operational details AND the big picture.

    11. your_neighbor says:

      Get an experienced private operator with deep pockets to run the rink.
      In the article the conservancy admits that they can’t run it on their own and would bring in private contractors to run it.
      Once a complex refrigeration system like the rink’s gets screwed up it costs a bundle to fix. A private operator would fix it on their own dime, the CPC would be asking for a bailout or would have to use donations already earmarked for other parts of the park.

    12. Elisabeth Jakab says:

      Please give the Wollman rink concession to the Central Park Conservancy. The intransigence of the PARKS Department makes me suspicious, and I wonder if there are other motives at work here to give the concession to a for-profit. Prices will be higher and amenities fewer, all in the name of profit.

    13. Quan says:

      Trump did a great job. This is an over-reaction politically motivated.

    14. sg says:

      There was no insurrection…that’s the term the Democrats gave it to make it sound worse than it was. They downplay all the BLM/Antifa riots taking place for months and play up January 6th. BTW, an unarmed woman was killed by a cop and the DOJ is not pressing charges…now that is a travesty.