2008-07-11 / Community

Sunset Picnic Concerts Cancelled, RMAC Says

By Howard Schwach

There will be no Sunset Picnic Concerts at Fort Tilden, or anywhere else in Rockaway, this summer.

After a lengthy discussion during a meeting on Wednesday, June 2, officials of the Rockaway Music and Arts Council, the organization that has hosted the concerts for more than two decades, have voted to cancel the highly popular concert series due to what Stephen Yaeger, the organization's president, terms as "unresolved conflicts resulting from Gateway National Recreation Area Superintendent Lisa Eckert's request that the series be moved to a Riis Park location."

Yaeger told The Wave that Eckert was obdurate about keeping the concerts out of their traditional Fort Tilden venue, instead, offering three sites in Riis Park.

The first two sites, the Bay 9 mall and the area in front of the bathhouse, were not suitable for performances due to the certainty of constant interference from people transiting to the beach, Yaeger said.

Rockaway Music and Arts Council vice president and concert series coordinator, John Musemeci, suggested the use of the inside courtyard inside the bathhouse.

The area was inspected and Yaeger agreed at the time, with some reluctance, that the site might be appropriate for the concerts, even though he still pined for the Fort Tilden site.

"For more than 20 years we have presented five concerts during the summer in Fort Tilden, drawing hundreds of people for each of the concerts. It's a quiet, secluded venue with grass and trees far superior to the courtyard. People can either sit or lie down to enjoy the performances, and parking, including handicap parking, far surpasses the Riis Park site in question," Yaeger said.

The demand for the move to Riis Park, as RMAC understands it, is threefold, Yaeger says. "Superintendent Eckert wants all special events in Riis Park. Riis Park provides for better parking, and restroom services are convenient. But the last two seem to be poor reasons: Parking at the Fort Tilden site is closer and free of charge, and restrooms are always available near the Little League field, a short distance from the concert site."

One of the problems presented by the move, Musemeci says, is parking. Concertgoers would have to park in the Riis Park parking lot and Gateway insists that fees would be have to be charged to those coming early to the parking lot, which closes officially at 6 p.m. Musemeci added that many people come to the concerts about an hour before they begin, sometimes as early as 5 p.m., and that this would be unfair.

Since Gateway is firm on this issue, Yaeger says, the only way to solve it would be to move the starting time of the concerts back to 8:00 p.m., two hours after the lot closes, so no fees would be charged to those coming early to picnic on the grass.

Musemeci added that in Fort Tilden, there is handicapped and senior citizen parking near the stage, allowing the elderly easy access to the concerts, while at Riis Park, there's a long distance walk from the lot to the courtyard site.

"Older members of the audience might not be too happy carrying their chairs, blankets, picnics, etc. from the lot to the site," Yaeger added.

Eckert's request, Yaeger says, has virtually deprived the Rockaway community of one of its most popular, cultural presentations. "I understand and appreciate that she has excellent credentials in her field," Yaeger says, "but I don't think they include dealing with a community directly dependent on an urban park."

He continued, "I don't recall her attending any one of the last number of meetings in which we discussed our concerns with her request to move the concerts. I'm not sure if she really understands what the concerts are about and how right the Fort Tilden site is for such concerts. It's almost as though Gateway is in a self-destruct mode, especially after the park was recently given the lowest rating of some 28 national parks." He added that together with the the Rockaway Theatre Company and the Rockaway Artists Alliance, RMAC's concerts have made Fort Tilden the cultural center of the Rockaways.

Eckert responded to the RMAC's charges in this week's Wave with an "It's My Turn" column, which can be found elsewhere in the paper.

Eckert wrote that the rules for all national parks must be followed at Gateway, even though it is the only urban park in the system.

"The Jamaica Bay Unit issues 150 special use permits each year," she said. "Applications are reviewed to determine the tie to the NPS mission. Impacts to the general public, and staff availability, all requirements set by law and policy.

By law, no taxpayer dollars authorized by Congress in our annual budget may be used for this activity, which means that all personnel costs, supplies, utilities, etc. are charged to the organizers as 'cost recovery.' This, along with other terms and conditions of the permit, must be followed or the permit may be suspended." She added that Robert Moses specifically designed Riis Park to hold special events such as concerts.

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