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Carousels can be make your head spin and so can the decision to build a new one on the Greenway. As announced this week in the Boston Globe and the Greenway Conservancy’s blog, an anonymous donor is contributing $1 million that will be used to build a new carousel for the Greenway, replacing the concession that exists today between Faneuil Hall and Christopher Columbus Park on Parcel 14.

Existing Seasonal Carousel Lit Up at Night on Greenway (NorthEndWaterfront.com photo)

Let’s do the math. The Conservancy’s blog tells us that about 90,000 kids enjoy the carousel each year. Tickets are $3 per ride, so that totals a healthy $270,000 in gross revenues. The existing concession covers the capital costs, maintenance and operational expenses and the Conservancy makes about $50,000 – $70,000 per year from a piece of ticket sales.

Here is the big question: Why spend a million dollars for a carousel that already exists today at no cost? An owned carousel would increase revenues by eliminating the concession, however, the Conservancy would also take on the substantial labor, maintenance and operational costs. Let’s be optimistic and say that today’s estimated $60,000 in net cash flow to the Conservancy doubles to $120,000 after spending the million dollars to build and operate a new carousel. It would take over 16 years for the incremental cash flow to make back the $1 million capital cost. You can play with the numbers, but there really is no scenario where this makes sense.

Perhaps more relevant than the cold numbers is the lack of public benefit from building a new one. Remember, half of the Conservancy’s $5.2 million budget comes from the State. Are there no projects on or off the Greenway where a million dollars would be better spent? How about restrooms? How about gardens? How about a playground or tot lot? How about covering the ramps?

Existing Carousel Operating on Greenway (NorthEndWaterfront.com photo)

Here is an idea: Lower the carousel ticket price to 25 cents. Folks seem to like the carousel. So do I. But, when the price is over $1 per ride for a few minutes, no family is going to use it very often. The addition of public infrastructure for kids or families that can be used for free, carousel or otherwise, would enhance the Greenway and the adjacent neighborhoods. This point seems lost in this debate.

I must have been spun around too many times because there was little debate on these crucial questions at this week’s Greenway Leadership Council meeting. Nearly everyone in attendance was tripping over themselves to offer complementary remarks. A few questions from the advisory leadership council members as to how these decisions are being made were put off to the future “community meetings.” It was announced by Conservancy executives that these meetings will be highlighted by important discussions on the types of animals and theme colors for the new carousel.

What does $1 million buy? Conservancy executives said they are still working the numbers, but they believe that a million dollars does not buy much more of a carousel than exists there today. The new carousel will be pretty much the same in terms of size and scale (34 feet in diameter with 32 characters) as the existing one, but it will be customized and “themed” instead of the traditional horses. Conservancy executives said the new carousel would not look “plunked down” and they plan some landscaping and surrounding changes.

A a website shared by Shirley Kressel revealed that a custom carousel of similar size can be purchased for less than $500,000. So, where is the rest of the money going? Read on.

The Conservancy is hiring several experts for this project, not to mention paying themselves. The Conservancy has identified Jeffrey Briggs Design for the carousel. The design team includes Utile Inc., the NY firm recently worked on the Harbor Islands Pavilion and the Boston Redevelopment Authority’s Greenway Development Guidelines. The landscape architecture will be done by Reed Hilderbrand and engineering by Simpson Gumpertz Hefer, all heavy hitters. Of course, let us not forget the Conservancy personnel that will help fund their own compensation from this project. As previously reported, they are not cheap. Let’s remember folks, this is a small carousel not the Empire State Building.

The anonymous $1 million donor came through the Boston Foundation who sent a representative to the meeting. He said the idea of a carousel came through discussion with the Conservancy. It was clear that this project and the leak to the Globe had been long in the planning process.

GLC members were told a few weeks ago via teleconference about the carousel and donation. Peter Gori spoke for the BRA, supporting the project while noting the carousel on Boston Common has not been much of a success.

In terms of location, the Conservancy has determined that it should either be located at Parcel 14 (where it is today) or slightly south on Parcel 16.

To sum up, my view is to keep the existing carousel that cost nothing, lower the ticket price, give neighborhood children free rides, add some landscaping to make it fit in better with perhaps a nice white picket fence instead of the steel barriers. But most importantly, use the $1 million donation for something that actually provides a new public benefit.

In other business, the Greenway Leadership Council discussed the following issues.

Parcel 21
Through an in-kind contribution by Boston Properties, developer of the Russia/Atlantic Wharf tower, the Conservancy will makes irrigation and pathway repairs on Parcel 21 across from the Intercontinental Hotel & Residences. The Conservancy calls this Fort Point Channel South while others refer to it as the Greenway Gardens.  Remediation will add drains, improve irrigation and add new sod.

Business Improvement District
The Conservancy is starting an 18 month process to establish a Business Improvement District (BID) for the Greenway similar to that proposed for Downtown Crossing. Commercial business owners will be asked to pay a special tax to fund maintenance and capital improvements on the Greenway. Funds are targeted to be roughly 30% of the total Conservancy budget. The next step is for the City Council to hold a hearing.

Mary Soo Hoo Park Redesign
The redesign for Mary Soo Hoo Park in Chinatown has been postponed because the BRA failed to acquire a piece of land from a family trust. A smaller redesign is expected to be proposed in the coming months. Chinatown residents in attendance were very disappointed with the news. Separetly, a Chinatown group asked the Conservancy to consider a statue of a famous cultural figure on the Greenway near the Chinatown gate in preparation for a 2011 celebration.

See the community calendar for all upcoming meetings.

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14 COMMENTS

  1. ABSOLUTELY UNBELIEVABLE !!!!!
    Didn't our tax dollars pay for enough wasteful management with the Big Dig?
    And now we are being insulted by this?
    UNFORGIVABLE !!

  2. Matt, I love your reporting.

    There are many children in this neighborhood that walk by that carousel every day. If a child were to ride it a couple of times a week while it was open, the family would end up spending hundreds of dollars. Forget about siblings. The conservancy decided that the "discounted" tickets were enough of a discount for the neighborhood – I think it's a mere 50 cents off. Your comment that the million dollars could be used to reduce the cost to 50 cents per RIDE is spot on. To my family, having that carousel there feels like a neighborhood tax on families with children.

    At the "tea party" that they had this summer, one of the women handing out the cupcakes would hand the cupcake to a visitor, and comment "This event is such a success!" over and over, as if she were trying to convince everyone. It rang hollow.

    How come the "executives" at the Greenway make so much money, yet our own local park can be run so efficiently and successfully – – by unpaid volunteers?!?!

  3. When I first read about donation and the new carousel, I thought "oh, that's nice." But the more I think about it, I wonder why exactly this is a priority? Seems like a luxury, not a necessity. I also wonder who this anonymous donor really is and what really are their intentions. Something just doesn't smell right.

  4. Matt,
    Thanks for this post. I am in complete agreement…is this the BEST and most USEFUL use of $1M on the Greenway??? It certainly doesn't seem so.

    And the claim that it is from a private donor, so it's not diverting funds is disingenuous. If a donor wants to make a big fat donation, they usually ask, how can it best be used?

    Further, the proposed Business Improvement DIstrict is a way to force commercial landowners to pay extra for services which should already be provided for through tax collection, and forces landowners to foot the bill for the conservancy…which will be even less responsive to oversight.

  5. Hey, keep in mind that if you have a Charlie Card, you get a free ticket to ride the Carousel. You have to visit the Greenway's offices downtown to claim it, however! Carousels in other areas of the city are cheaper, at $2/ride. Those on the Greenway and in the Common are at least a dollar more.

  6. Great story! But there's one more thing: The current carousel — what the Conservancy last year called "a spectacular, classic carousel" — costs the Conservancy nothing at all. The Conservancy is collecting $3 dollars from children for a ride that is already paid for by a corporate sponsor! (And who are these New Hampshire residents — two of them are apparently required — who collect the fee? No one in Boston was qualified for this specialized work?) According to http://www.artsboston.org/event/detail/46565/Greenway_Carousel, this generously discounted rate is only possible thanks to a sponsorship by the Marriott Boston Long Wharf! So, the kids could actually ride for free. Instead, the Conservancy fleeces them for $270,000 a year (if the 90,000-rider figure is accurate). (The carousel in Central Park, NYC, costs only $2.) What on earth do they do with all this money?

    In any case, the very last million-dollar thing this world needs is a new carousel on this park.

    But, having already exhausted motherhood (those $500 pavers) and apple pie (the healthy-food carts), the Conservancy is proceeding to raise the "heartwarming-o-meter" with children and animals. Who can protest anything that's for the little tykes? And has cute little fishies?

    Here's how I figure the numbers. I suspect that this carousel is a pretext to get more money into the already over-stuffed pockets of the Conservancy staff. Half (maybe) will go to the merry-go-round, and the rest will end up in yet more bloated administrative salaries. (The advance amount of $225,000 happens to be exactly what Executive Director Nancy Brennan is paid annually! Quelle coincidence!) But we'll never know — unless the state actually enforces the Conservancy's enabling law and forces them to give up all their concealed financial information. So far, the state has been quiet on this, despite its "letter of conditions" which finally required public disclosure of revenues and expenditures in return for the state's millions of dollars). I fear that the same big wheels spinning money into the Conservancy are also swaying the state to shut up and let this go on.

    Now, I see that the Conservancy wants to create (and they certainly will, if our city councilors are the deciders) a Business Improvement District, to collect even more millions. The park certainly doesn't need more money; maybe the Conservancy wants to get out from under the state's beneficence, which now comes with disclosure strings attached (if not actually pulled), and be totally "self-funding." Then there will be only the law — hello, Rep. Aaron Michlewitz and Sen. Sonia Chang-Diaz, what about that law?!) — as leverage to pry open their steel-bound books and see who is giving them money, what those donors might be getting back for it, and what's being done with it.

    And remember: All these donations are tax-deductible, so the generous donors are getting back almost 40% from us taxpayers, while they reap the political and financial benefits of supporting this "politicians' good cause fund" when they've maxed out on direct campaign donations. And there must be some big payoff involved here, if the donor has to launder his donation through another non-profit, the Boston Foundation, as a double identity shield.

    When will we learn? There is no free lunch, and certainly no free corporate lunch. We should take care of public services with public money, and exercise public control. With the help of this non-profit Conservancy (created, remember, to do all its work with PRIVATE money!), the taxpayers are ending up paying ten times what we need to for the park's maintenance, and helping a lot of people do a lot of other stuff we don't need — and might actually hurt us.

  7. This is a wonderful piece of reporting, and I agree 100% with Matt's points, especially his suggestion of subsidizing rides so more kids can enjoy them.

    I wish we didn't have to keep such a sharp eye on the Conservancy, but they do seem prone to making foolish decisions that profit mainly themselves.

  8. Matt and Shirley: I'm grateful that there are at least two citizens who are usually right on the mark and don't miss much. Thank you both for looking out for our great city and exposing the wheeling and the dealing and whose pockets are being lined.

  9. I suspect that some of the concern about the Conservancy may be valid. But, why bundle your concerns about the Conservancy into the issue of someone who'd like to give the City a carousel? I wouldn't dream of telling you not to give $5 to the Jimmy Fund because I think it could be better used by another charity. And I think it would be outrageous to tell you that I believed you were only making the donation for the tax deduction.
    Isn't it just possible that someone worked hard for her/his money and loves carousels and wanted Boston to have a wonderful and unique one instead of a standard carnival one? Where's the part where we say "Thank You!"? If I were the donor, I'd be rethinking giving the City anything right now.
    Speaking of "Thank you"… David Mugar is the driving force (and big donor) for the 4th of July fireworks. Have you ever sent him a "Thank you" note… or do you just think he's doing it for the tax write off?

  10. BTW, as far as what the anonymous donor is getting for $1 mil it could just be naming rights. Like "The BLAHBLAH Family Carousel." If we're lucky, we'll get Aquarium-type rides, like lobsters and fish, something more unique to Boston. Reminds me of how the NYC Public Library sold out to a wealthy donor who made them rename the library. For the super-rich, a million bucks to get their name on a new Greenway fixture is a small price to pay. The corporate and private interests growing influence and theft of Boston's common areas and green spaces continues. Mike Ross, who managed to kill the people's request for a permanent dog park on the Boston Common but who insisted on an unneeded restaurant instead, must be delighted.

  11. Trust me. It's not for the tax write-off, and it's not for the naming rights. And it's certainly not because the carousel there now isn't good enough. It's not about the carousel at all.

    But we will never know if we don't find out the donor's name. There are lots of dots to connect to figure these things out; the first is the donor's name. That's why it is double-hidden.

  12. Thanks Jeff. Typo fixed. Now I can go to sleep.

    And thanks to everyone else who commented. Whether you agree or not, it is a worthwhile discussion.

    Matt

  13. I cant understand why Its so difficult to get anyone from city hall to offer up some of this Greenway space for a off leash Dog park? There are a lot of residents who have dogs and they pay taxes too , Many have chosen to have a 4 paws kid as part of the family . In the North End there are multiple "Tot Lots ,some unused . But not one city run Dog Park. Its not like the old days when you had your dog on a piece of rope current pets go to spa and wear designer duds. There is a campaign that DOG s are a disease ridden threat to peoples health. Fact we are at more risk from the excrement and drug needles ,etc –Hep B and C ,HIV. of the Druggies and homeless. Most communicable diseases are not transfered animal to human..
    There has been no mention that the Park on the corner of Commercial and Richmond St at the corner of Christopher Columbus Plaza is zoned , and listed in the walking Guide of Boston Map as a DOG Park . I wish the planning board for the Green way could consider some designated area for Dog families.

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