The parks department needs to do a better job of monitoring whether concessionaires are making agreed-upon improvements to the park facilities they lease, according to an audit by the office of New York City Comptroller William C. Thompson, Jr.
The Department of Parks and Recreation licenses about 600 businesses that pay to operate on parkland or in park buildings. In some cases, the owner of a concession, such as a skating rink, golf course, or restaurant, contracts with the city to spend a certain amount of money to make specific improvements to the facility they operate. According to the comptroller’s report, 37 of the 58 concessions inspected had not completed promised capital improvements totaling $10 million. The audit determined that the department did not make sure that improvements were started and completed on the specified dates and that it did not conduct routine inspections of the work.
The audit also found that it was difficult to track the status of projects because the parks department did not obtain required documentation from concessionaires. It noted that 10 of the 37 businesses with uncompleted capital improvements claimed that the department had authorized them to modify or cancel the projects, but neither the department nor the concessionaires could show paperwork certifying that changes had been requested and approved.
The parks department, however, disputed the findings. The department noted in a press release that the businesses audited met or exceeded their required capital investment by a combined total of more than $15 million. "The inaccuracies of the comptroller’s audit send the wrong message to businesses working with the city," said Parks Commissioner Adrian Benepe. Nevertheless, the department said that it was expanding its current policy "to assure that all changes to contract requirements, regardless of size, will be documented in writing" and that it would include reports on concession capital projects in its monthly revenue management meetings.
WHERE SHOULD THE REVENUE GO?
Last year, parks department concessions brought in nearly $60 million. But the parks department doesn’t get to keep the revenue; instead, it goes to the city’s general fund. New Yorkers for Parks and other advocates believe that the revenue should go to the department, in addition to its regular city appropriations. These advocates have been working for years to increase parks funding. They say the extra money would help rebuild the department’s fulltime staff of skilled professionals, which has dropped 60 percent over the last 15 years ago, and fund more recreation programs.
Joseph Pupello, president of the New York Restoration Project, a non-profit group that has been restoring parks in upper Manhattan and the Bronx, believes that concessions can be a growing source of revenue as well as a way to enhance the park experience. "Stop bashing the parks department and starting coming up with creative ways to make concessions a wonderful part of the city," he said. "There is so much new opportunity for creativity and entrepreneurship in parks," particularly in the outer boroughs where the population is growing and parks are being improved. His organization has invested in the New Leaf CafĂ©, a restaurant in an historic building in Fort Tryon Park.
Some park supporters worry, however, that increasing the number of concessions could lead to too much or inappropriate commercialization. Their worst fears seemed to be realized last year when the parks department announced that it would contract with Wendy’s to put a restaurant in a closed comfort station in a Bronx park. Others object to turning over more public space to activities, like golf, where people have to pay to play, while neighborhoods where poor people live are short of green space and sports facilities.
Some of these concerns might be allayed by a new breed of concessionaires -- the non-profit organizations that support and help manage the parks. These organizations have as much of an interest in beautifying and improving their parks as they do in raising funds. The Prospect Park Alliance, for example, operates all of the concessions within Prospect Park. It recently won the contract to take over the tennis center at the nearby Parade Grounds, whose previous concessionaire had failed to build a clubhouse and make other promised improvements.
Anne Schwartz is a freelance writer specializing in environmental issues. Previously, she was the editor of the Audubon Activist, a news journal for environmental action published by the National Audubon Society, and an editor at The New York Botanical Garden.