As aquarium prepares to reopen, Coney Island amusement parks face financial disaster

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Coney Island amusements face an uncertain future as they are remaining closed during the Covid-19 pandemic, possibly for the remainder of the season – causing a spread of empty buildings. (Photo by Todd Maisel)

Coney Island received some good news this week when the mayor signed off on the reopening of the New York Aquarium after having remained closed since the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic. But that silver lining in the cloud that’s hung over the Brooklyn playground all summer is as thin as paper.

Luna Park, the Wonder Wheel, the Cyclone and their accompanying amusement rides have been motionless throughout the season. They’re still off-limits to patrons due to concerns about the spread of COVID-19 — and some wonder if they’ll reopen this season at all.

Crowds have been significantly smaller on the Coney Island Boardwalk without the amusement attractions, some food concessions report significant reductions in business.

But more worrisome is the concern that there will be no reopening — something that would send amusement park operators into a financial tailspin as they try to pay mortgages, loans, and continue to pay the Economic Development Corporation for their leases.

Most businesspeople in Coney Island say they are already heading for financial “ruin.” The mass closure of businesses on the Boardwalk threatens to return Coney Island to the grim 1970s and 1980s — when it was a virtual ghost town of crime, trash and abandoned structures.

Already, many restaurants on Surf Avenue have closed their doors; at least one new restaurant, Tressa, has not even opened for outdoor dining. Leasing signs have gone up on many previously occupied properties.

Vintage 1988 photo of storefronts on Surf Avenue burning, landlords couldn’t rent those properties at that time. (photo by Todd Maisel)

Dennis Vourderis — who with his brother Steve and family has owned the ferris wheel since 1983 — are appealing to Governor Andrew Cuomo to at least allow the famed Wonder Wheel to reopen. He said the ride, which was supposed to celebrate its 100th anniversary this year, represents the ultimate in social distancing with 15 feet from each car in the open air.

Wonder Wheel Amusement Park is closed for the pandemic, but is ready to reopen if the state will let them. Owner Dennis Vourderis says they can open safely under health guidelines. (Photo by Todd Maisel)

This past month, Mayor Bill de Blasio said he would look into the issue, but has not gotten back to Vourderis. In the meantime, he has written to the governor appealing for a review and a sign-off.

“If ever there was ONE New York State attraction that has safe social distancing designed right into its operation,” Vourderis wrote to Cuomo, “it is the WONDER WHEEL – the centerpiece of the skyline of the Coney Island Boardwalk is an open-air gondola ride with separation.  We invite you to visit and we await approval to open so that we may celebrate our 100th year of safe operations.”

Vourderis fears disaster if neither the Wonder Wheel or the park are open, it will mean financial ruin.

“Our association reached out several times, and there is no news,” he said. “Our lobbyist was supposed to speak at 1 p.m., but did not respond back – we are hanging by a thread, waiting to hear the news.  Bowling alleys and gyms are reopening, but I didn’t hear anything about amusements. “

He said they were “a little excited” when they heard the Aquarium would open, and we thought, “oh, the amusements may be next week, but nothing, so its hard to understand rationale, We want to spread the love, not the virus, time is ticking, and its getting closer to labor day our traditional end.”

Alessandro Zamperla, president of Central Amusements International, owner of Luna Park and other subleases, said the result of the closure of the parks is our “financial situation is devastating.” In addition, they normally employ 1000 people, but this year, they have fewer than 100 permanent employed, with most of those on furlough and he is considering the “permanent damage.”

Zamperla said they had just completed a $13 million renovation project, but “we have generated no dollars since last October, that’s 12 months without revenue.”

Coney Island amusements face an uncertain future Luna Park remains closed, possibly the rest of the season. (Photo by Todd Maisel)

He said they are appealing to Senator Charles Schumer and Congressman Hakeem Jeffries to make sure future stimulus packages assist the seasonal type businesses that comprise much of Coney Island.

“This is a family-owned business and to survive, we will need a financial lifeline or we won’t make it,” Zamperla said. “The season is almost over, we are here at September and we are financially done. The federal government needs to come through with a small business program, we have creditors and financial obligations and we need this help now.”

Currently, their landlord is the city’s Economic Development Corporation, the Cyclone itself is on park property. He said he would like the city to provide a 10-year extension on rent, but would at least take five years.

“I know its not easy for the city – if you think back 10 years ago, Coney Island had crime, problems with cleanliness and I know this is not easy,” he said. “We are your tenants and we are investing and improving to create more jobs so we need time to negotiate with creditors and our covenants – give us 10 years, but at least 5 yrs, so have way to keep going and make it through.”

On the state level, he said he and other operators are looking for guidance to reopen at least with the little time they have left and going forward into 2021. He said they have planned for social distancing, cleanliness, sanitation and other issues to make it safe for their visitors.

“We need clarity and guidance to know what does it mean for outdoor amusement, what do we have to submit – we believe everything is in place because as you know, the amusement business is about safety,” Zamperla said. “So far, we have had no feedback, but at least we need to plan for 2021 – and by that time, we will have had no revenue for 18months.”

Councilman Mark Treyger is keenly aware of the dangers of losing the amusement area and the possible long term damage to the economy, so he is seeking a break from the city leases.

“At start of this year, we were in talks with Dennis and number of Coney Island stake holders – this was supposed to be a historic year, to celebrate the 100th birthday of Wonder Wheel, but now Dennis is asking the city leaders how will he survive,” Treyger said. 

He is currently working with the city to find flexibility on leases, PPP that many didn’t qualify. he said those businesses also didn’t qualify for business interruption insurance, or some SBS loans.

“We don’t need platitudes, Tweets, statements – we need concrete actions and it is within the control of the city to cancel rents of the city’s tenants and subtenants to get through a difficult period  – after all the amusements are ordered to remain closed – the mayor hasn’t allowed amusement to reopen,” Treyger said.  “The mayor is the landlord so the city needs to take steps to cancel rent until they can open.”

Treyger said he is determined to make sure Coney Island doesn’t fall back into the abyss.

“These businesses never gave up on New York or the, neighborhood and they believed in Coney Island they hired locally took part in community events – Dennis and others from amusement district helped people to ride out Hurricane Sandy, even providing emergency supplies even when they themselves going through enormous challenges,” Treyger said. “There is no NYC without Coney island and we’ve come so far I will work heart out to make sure we don’t go back.”

Leaders fear Coney Island could become a lot of empty storefronts. (Photo by Todd Maisel)

Community Board 13 District Manager Eddie Mark said he worries that the ripple effect of losing businesses in Coney Island would last for years. Much of that effect would be in the permanent loss of thousands of summer jobs, and the threat of having empty storefronts making no local revenues.

“The hardest thing is that the season is mostly over and kids are heading back to school so even if they are allowed to open, nobody will even be there,” Mark said.

He mourns that they have worked so hard, getting ferry service, repairing infrastructure and putting so much in the community to attract jobs and development.

“Whether the city comes in with grants or relief it will still be hard to open next year and with the possibility of a lack of businesses open, will it look like 70s 80s and become undesirable place? We’ve done so much work over the past 10 years, we don’t want things to slip back to what it used to be.”

Alexandra Silversmith, executive director of the Coney Island Alliance, said she tries to remain optimistic but she also knows the impact of losing the amusement area.

“It would be a huge loss – Coney Island is iconic New York, the birthplace of the amusement industry and people come from all over world for that,” Silversmith said. “This is the reason city invests so much in that. I don’t think the areas won’t have amusements, but god forbid, it would be a huge travesty for New York, the  neighborhood – so many employed there and our unemployment rate is very high, especially in our community.”

Even during Hurricane Sandy, businesses had time to recover for the spring season – while this is much worse, she said.

“Finally the Aquarium is open, but not having our major attractions open, amphitheater and amusement all summer has had a huge impact on any business in Coney Island, even the small mom and pops. Not having Friday night fireworks, not having attractions, Mermaid Parade, all this combined, this has been a catastrophe,” she said.

“There’s a lot of nostaligia here and Coney island will be back and we will be back,” said Brian St. Laz with his son Brian Jr. on Coney Island Boardwalk. (Photo by Todd Maisel)