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Hamburg tired of footing the bill to keep Woodlawn Beach open

Hamburg got the keys to Woodlawn Beach State Park on a winter day in 2011, marking the successful effort to reopen one of the jewels on the waterfront after the state closed the gates during a budget crisis.

Since then, town taxpayers have spent more than a half million dollars to make up for losses at the park, which is still owned by New York State.

And while town officials say they want to keep the beach open, they don't think local taxpayers should underwrite a state park.

"I am skeptical as to the wisdom of continuing to operate the beach at a significant annual loss," Hamburg Supervisor James M. Shaw said. "I think we need a significant infusion of state and county help."

He said he wrote a letter to the Erie County executive, and Hamburg is negotiating a new deal with the state.

"The goal is to keep it open," said town Councilman Thomas Best Jr., who is on the negotiating team. "If there' s not a benefit to the town taxpayer keeping it open, I'm not going to support it."

Not wanting to see the large asset remain closed in 2010, then-Supervisor Steven Walters negotiated a 10-year agreement with the state for the town to operate the beach, which had been one of several state parks closed during the financial crisis. The agreement automatically renews for an additional 10 years unless the state does not renew it or the town takes action to terminate it.

Under the contract, the town receives all the entrance fees and other revenue generated at the beach. Any profit must go back into the park. And if there is any loss, the town must fill the hole.

Woodlawn Beach State Park is crowded on a hot day in July 2014. (News file photo)

"By the way, we haven't made any money," Best said of the eight years the town has run the beach.

Taxpayers have questioned the use of town money to subsidize the park, particularly since there are estimates that most of those using the beach do not live in Hamburg.

"I believe it should be a county park because all the people in the county enjoy that," said Joe Kilian, president of the Hamburg Taxpayers Association. "It's certainly hard for Hamburg taxpayers to foot the bill for the entire county for recreation."

The enterprise was not expected to make money at first – New York State lost more than $300,000 at the park in 2008 – but supporters of the idea hoped that with the town's attention to detail, the gem with its gorgeous sand dunes and mile-long beach would break even or even make a few dollars.

The town added a beach bar, gift shop, playground and "Pirate's Cove" inflatable play area, and ramped up shelter and pavilion rentals with weddings on the beach. The summer Adventure Day Camp moved to the beach.

But the town lost $34,702 that first summer, and the losses kept piling up, despite an increase in revenues from rentals of the pavilion, rent from the bar and entrance fees.

To track revenues, look no further than the weather. Woodlawn has a troubled history with water quality, which is affected by precipitation. The more it rains, the more contaminants flow from creeks and sewers into the lake, and swimming is banned when the water has high bacteria levels. Swimming also can be prohibited on windy days.

Not surprisingly, the numbers look better for hotter, drier summers.

The town lost $185,703 in 2017, which was mainly due to poor weather. Swimming was banned for more days that year than in any other, according Hamburg Recreation Director Martin Denecke. Three years earlier, in 2014, the loss was just $12,715, and the town had its highest attendance.

During negotiations, Hamburg is looking for three major items from New York, Best said:
• A commitment to a capital improvement plan.

• A subsidy to help pay for losses at the beach.

• Removal of piles of mostly biodegradable debris that has been cleaned from the beach.

The parking lot needs to be redone, the roof is old and the town would like restrooms at the picnic grove, he said. The town also wants to find out how much the state is willing to subsidize operations at Woodlawn. The other major point is removing the piles of beach debris.

The town rakes the debris left by storms, and stores it on the north end of the property, but is running out of room there. Because of the high bacteria count in the waste, it is considered hazardous, and it is costly to dispose of it.

Time is a factor in these negotiations. Hamburg needs to know if it will continue operating the beach, because people will want to book weddings and other parties for 2020.

"We can't book for a wedding unless we know if we're operating the beach," Best said.

Hamburg also is facing a tight budget with the troubles and assessment challenge of one of its biggest taxpayers, McKinley Mall.

"What is our moral obligation? What do we owe the community? Is our debt to the community at large affected by what may transpire at McKinley Mall?" Shaw, the town supervisor, said.

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