‘Gravy Train Not Coming Back’
For many years, Rockaway residents and non-profits enjoyed a “gravy train” at Gateway National Recreation Area, holding an annual free concert series and a Fall Festival at Fort Tilden, playing little league baseball and CYO soccer without cost, and attending cultural activities such as art shows and musical theater.
That run of free activities at the park, officials say, lasted until 2007, when auditors from the agency’s inspector general came to check up on the park’s “private use of public spaces” and came up with the decision that even non-profits such as youth sports and cultural organizations had to pay their fair share of the costs to put on those events.
“Up until that audit, the park and the local community were on the gravy train,” says Gateway Public Relations Director John Harlan Warren. “After the audit and the cuts to the park’s budget, the gravy train left the station and it’s not coming back.”
“That audit in 2007 said that we were not following the rules,” said Rita Mullally, District Ranger, Jamaica Bay Unit, and longtime Rockaway resident. “The problem did not lie with the community groups, but with us. We wanted to do what was right for the community, and it turned out to be wrong for the park, according to the rules.”
“In the late ’90s, we were a jolly group,” Warren said. “Now, we have less to give and we are not as jolly anymore.”
The park officials used the nearly-defunct Rockaway Music and Arts Council as an example.
“Every year, the RMAC held free concerts and a free Fall Festival at Fort Tilden,” Warren said. “We loved it and the community loved it.”
The auditor did not love it, however, and dictated that the park charge for “reasonable expenses.”
The last time the RMAC ran its Fall Festival, three years ago, the parks service charged the non-profit organization $6,389 for the two-day event, money that, parks officials say, was used for personnel and keeping the bathrooms open and running.
They consider that not a great amount of money.
RMAC officials said at the time, however, that the charge insured that the organization would lose money on the event, which once funded its concert series, and had to close the festival down.
Similarly, the park charged about $800 for each of the concerts, even though they were free.
That $800 was used to fund the rangers that patrolled the park and parking areas during the event. With no money coming in, however, and increasing costs for the talent, the highly-popular concerts that drew hundreds of people, were scratched.
Warren said that a similar problem exists with the youth sports leagues, which fall into the same category as the RMAC.
“The little league has the exclusive use of that land during the summer months,” Warren said of the five-field complex at Fort Tilden. “Because of that, the rules dictate that the organization have a lease. Our experts have figured out that the cost comes to about $20,000 a year for exclusive use of the clubhouse and the fields.
The little league has said in the past that it cannot afford to charge more for each participant without losing players and that funding the increase might force them to look elsewhere for playing fields, although the only other baseball field on the peninsula, outside of Breezy Point, is at O’Donohue Park on Beach 17 Street in Far Rockaway, and that is used by the Rockaway Athletic Club and the PAL.
“We take care of the Fort Tilden fields, we groom them and do all the work on the clubhouse,” a little league parent said. “The park service does little for us to warrant that kind of fee.”
Similarly, the Catholic Youth Organization runs a youth soccer league at Fort Tilden.
A CYO official told The Wave that four years ago, the CYO paid $1,600 to use the fields for the entire year. Two years ago, that cost was raised to $7,600. Now, the organization has been told, next year the fields will cost more than $20,000 to rent for the season.
Warren says that it charges the CYO $5 daily for each field that it uses, but that the program is so large that the costs go up pretty quickly.
“We understand the CYO’s problem, but the rules require that we charge a fee for the use of our public land, Warren said.”
Warren added that those rules had relevance to the recent Wounded Warriors controversy, in which the park service told the Warriors and their sponsors that they could not use a Breezy Point parking lot that they had used for years.
“That parking lot is now a special use parcel, and it could not be used for parking any longer,” Warren said. “We love the Wounded Warriors and what they had done for our nation and we knew it would be a public relations nightmare to turn them down, but the rules said we could not use that property for parking any longer.”
“We obeyed the rules even though we knew in our hearts that it was wrong.”
“You can never reach out enough to the community,” Warren said. “But this is a national organization with its directions, orders and regulations. It tells us what we have to do, and charging for private use of public land is one of those things it demands.