Budget Crunch May Shutter Governors Island

More than 125,000 people boated to the tiny ex-military base off the tip of Manhattan last year for summer concerts, free bike rides on carless paths, and breathtaking views of New York Harbor.

But Governors Island's days as a free summer playground may be numbered.

Gov. David Paterson put no funding for the island in his executive budget this year. And the city, which shares the expense of operating the island and usually matches state funding, announced a sobering budget update Friday with projected multibillion-dollar deficits, higher taxes and possible layoffs. Community leaders are privately saying the economy may not be able to support the island's big or small plans.

Without funding restored, “we would have to shut the island down,'' said Leslie Koch, president of the Governors Island Preservation & Education Corp.

Governors Island, closed to the public for more than 200 years, has transformed into an out-of-the-way waterfront park in the years since the city and state bought it from the federal government for $1.

It is accessible only by ferry. Nevertheless, five times as many visitors used the island last year as in 2003, the first year it was opened to the public. Little Leaguers use the island's baseball diamond; a maritime school and artists' studios are under construction; an ambitious, $500 million design would build hilly parkland, salt marshes, waterfront promenades and marine galleries.

Koch said the island's budget was about $36 million for the current fiscal year, which will conclude in June. That included $20 million for capital expenses like restoring historic buildings and demolishing others, maintaining docks on the seawall and funding a master plan to redevelop the entire island. Public access to the island, shut down for the winter, is slated to resume in May.

But the governor has recommended no operating or capital funding in the latest budget, spokesman Jeffrey Gordon said. Paterson proposed in December cutting over hundreds of millions from schools and raised sales taxes to end what he called the worst economic downturn since the Great Depression. The Legislature will need to sign off on any budget cuts.

Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver recently called the island “one of lower Manhattan's outdoor treasures'' and said he would work to ensure the space is maintained.

But the state put up a second, backup ferry for the island up for auction on eBay this week because it was too expensive to repair or maintain. The city recently closed a firehouse to save money. Corporation chair Avi Schick said “we have not yet reached a resolution or solution'' on funding for the fiscal year.

Sold by its original Dutch settlers to the British in 1708, the 172-acre island later became an American military base -- home for 202 years to soldiers, Confederate prisoners of war and the U.S. Coast Guard, yet off limits to civilians. The National Park Service, which owns 22 acres in the northern part of the island, opened up two historic Army forts to the public four years ago.

Buildings being demolished on the southern half of the island are to be replaced by over seven miles of traffic-free bike paths by the summer, Koch said. The Harbor School, a charter school focused on maritime issues, was expected to open next year. The redevelopment would add more sports fields and 90 acres of parkland, she said. Bloomberg once envisioned a public health center on the island.

Koch said there are no plans to charge visitors for the ferries or most services, except perhaps weekend bicycle rentals. “This is really a place that's being built for New Yorkers,'' she said.

She said of the funding, “it will really be up to our elected leaders to decide how to balance this. We're moving forward and preparing for the summer and hopeful that we'll be able to provide these resources for New Yorkers.''

Al Butzel, who sits on the board of directors of the Governors Island Alliance, said the island might someday be able to charge visitors years from now if an amphitheater or golf course is built.

“It can be something that's much more diverse than anything we have anywhere,'' he said.

Butzel has also sat on boards that oversaw the resurgence of the Hudson River Park on the far West Side and of parkland around the Brooklyn Bridge. Unlike those campaigns, he said, the island still lacks a champion _ an influential public official to step forward and fight for its future.

“For Governors Island you just don't have that kind of support at the top,'' he said. “Someone really has to recognize the potential for it.''

Copyright AP - Associated Press
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