GOVERNOR QUIETLY MOVES TO BUY HIS ISLAND FOR NEW YORK

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It took forever, and it may be too late, but Gov. George Pataki finally produced the plan the feds have to see if he wants to salvage a deal to return Governor’s Island to New York, instead of selling it to private developers. A year and a half before the clock runs out, and four years after the deadline was announced, Gov. Pataki is quietly circulating the state’s first detailed economic analysis of his plan to transform the old Coast Guard base into a public park, complete with hotel, conference center and restaurants.

In 1995, President Bill Clinton promised Sen. Daniel Patrick Moynihan that his administration would sell the property to New York for $1, provided state and city officials came up with a realistic and appropriate development strategy. But in 1997, the Congressional Budget Office mandated the sale of the 172-acre island, valued at about $300 million, to the highest bidder. With the island slated to go on the auction block in January 2002, Pataki and Mayor Rudy Giuliani will have to act fast if they still want to get the island for a song.

Now, in an 18-page report, the state essentially argues that any developer will have to spend $34.7 million just to upgrade the island’s facilities–some of which date back to the early 19th century–before any real construction can be done. That’s $21.2 million for preliminary work like demolition and the creation of regular ferry service to and from the island less than a mile off Manhattan’s shore, and $13.5 million in incentives for private investors. Another $109.1 million, the report says, would be needed to build the 46-acre park and to construct or rehab the island’s facilities. Given these costs, state planners ask, what businessperson in his right mind would be willing to spend an additional $300 million just to get hold of the property?

To date, the answer has been “no one”–the federal government has yet to receive a bid for the land, according to a spokesperson at the General Services Administration. Racing against the clock, New York’s top Democrats in Washington, Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton, Sen. Charles Schumer, Rep. Carolyn Maloney and Rep. Jerrold Nadler, have been pushing the governor’s new plan, most recently in a June 20 letter to President George W. Bush. So far the response from the president, admittedly not a fan of New York, has been silence. But New York’s supporters remain optimistic. “There’s a lot of behind-the-scenes work being done,” said Brian Walsh, spokesman for Rep. Benjamin Gilman, Republican sponsor of a bill to turn the island over to New York. “The House leadership is not saying no, they’re saying let’s work on it, so we’re very optimistic.”

Confidence in the governor’s real commitment to the plan is a bit more lukewarm, however. “Governor Pataki must use his influence to get that bill passed,” said Al Butzel of the Governor’s Island Group, a coalition of civil groups in favor of New York control of the island. “And he hasn’t done that, nor is there any sign that he’s inclined to do that.” Pataki’s office did not return repeated phone calls seeking comment.