The candidate’s ownership of the carousel puts New Yorkers in a familiar bind. This story was published in Our Town on Feb. 24, 2016.
It’s late afternoon on a mild winter weekday, and kids and tourists are lining up to pay $3 for a quintessentially New York moment: a carousel ride in Central Park.
On the wall next to the entrance is a white placard with red lettering that reads, “Trump Carousel Rules and Regulations” — one of the only indications that Donald J. Trump, presidential candidate, owns and operates the carousel.
Trump’s politics have begun seeping into the carousel, as riders weigh an afternoon escape against a deeply divisive candidate.
Gemma Whiteman and Joel Hauxwell, who were on vacation from England and rode the carousel Monday, said they noticed the placard bearing Trump’s name.
“It was in my head,” said Whiteman, when asked if the realization gave her pause. “He’s not very liked in England, so in my head I was a bit like, ‘Do I want to give money to this guy’s company?’”
In the end, said Whiteman, she and Hauxwell were in New York on vacation, and it mattered more that they went on the carousel.
“If it had been something like picking which shop or café to go in, I would’ve picked one that wasn’t Trump,” said Whiteman.
Sarah Orza, who was pushing a stroller with a toddler in tow after exiting the ride, said Trump’s ownership of the ride took a backseat to the experience. “It doesn’t matter to me, not with a three-year-old.”
Does she support Trump’s candidacy? “No, just the carousel.”
One woman, who was in New York for a job interview with a major media company and asked not to be identified because it might hurt her chances, said after she and her friend bought tickets they saw the sign indicating Trump operated the carousel.
“We bought the tickets too soon,” said her friend, Rafael Manna, who had he known Trump was involved, “would’ve given it a second thought.” But, said Manna, “Why the hell not? It’s been 25 years since I rode a carousel.”
It is a political calculus New Yorkers navigate everyday when it comes to one of their more contentious local characters. As Trump’s presidential campaign has gathered steam, locals have had to figure out how to separate Trump’s politics from the fact that he is a high-profile figure woven into the fabric of the city, from Trump apartment buildings and hotels to the ownership of two ice skating rinks close to the carousel in the park.
It’s not at all clear that the city relishes its relationship with Trump. Last year, Mayor Bill de Blasio’s administration was looking for ways to terminate the city’s contracts with Trump, after the presidential candidate referred to Mexicans as rapists during a speech in June when he announced his candidacy.
A selection of his other greatest hits include calling for a ban on Muslims entering the United States, criticizing Ariz. Sen. John McCain for getting captured in Vietnam, and blasting Megyn Kelly of Fox News for her performance during a GOP debate she moderated for the network.
After the comment about Mexicans, City Councilmember Mark Levine, chair of the parks committee, immediately called on the Parks Dept. to cut ties with Trump, who also has license agreements with the agency to run Lasker and Wollman rinks in Central Park and the Ferry Point Golf Club in the Bronx.
“Mr. Trump’s racist comments are despicable even by his already low standards,” Levine said. “Our parks are public spaces where everyone should feel welcome and an association with Mr. Trump directly contradicts this spirit.”
Levine noted that all of Trump’s license agreements with the city include terminate-at-will clauses. This newspaper filed a freedom of information request for the license agreements on all four concessions, and found that indeed they do contain such clauses, provided that the termination is not “arbitrary and capricious.”
De Blasio spokesperson Karen Hinton said in July that the city was discreetly reviewing their contracts with Trump, but a city official said last week the effort hit a wall in August.
“We reviewed the city’s existing contracts with Donald Trump and found no legal way to cancel these contracts,” said spokesperson Monica Klein. “In the future, however, the mayor said he would not go out of his way to do any business with Mr. Trump.”
At least when it comes to the carousel, business for Trump has been good. Revenue reports filed with the NYC Parks Dept. show Trump has grossed $1.72 million since 2013 on the carousel.
Ron Lieberman, a former NYC Parks official who is now an executive at the Trump Organization, said getting involved with the carousel was never a money-making proposition for Trump.
“It wasn’t from a money standpoint that [Trump] got involved in this, it was because this is a great New York City landmark,” said Lieberman. “Donald is a very important New Yorker and he did this because he wanted to do something to give back to New York City.”
Lieberman stressed that funds generated by the carousel and other Trump attractions in New York City are not used on his campaign.
“[The carousel] has nothing to do with the campaign,” said Lieberman. “The business and the campaign are completely and entirely separate.”
Lieberman said he doesn’t even know if the carousel is profitable.
“Honestly I don’t even know,” said Lieberman. “I told you, Donald got into this not from a money-making position, it was more to give back to New York City.”
Trump’s lease on the carousel runs through March 2020, and his annual payments to the city increase to $300,000 in 2018 and peak in the final year at $325,000. In March 2011, at the start of the license agreement, the annual fee was $250,000. Trump will wind up paying the city $2.725 million over the 10 years.
Carousel admission is set to increase in 2017 to $3.25 and peak at $3.50 in 2020. Trump is also allowed to sell food, beverages and merchandise at the carousel, according to the license agreement.
He’s also required to invest a minimum of $400,000 in capital improvements and repairs at the carousel over the life of the agreement, for things such as restoring the wooden horses and installing new lighting. A Parks Dept. spokesperson said Trump has so far followed the capital improvement schedule laid out in the agreement, which required him to spend a minimum of $260,000 on repairs and upgrades by April 2013.
According to the revenue reports, the most lucrative months at the carousel are between April and August, when over the last three years he’s grossed anywhere from $65,000 to almost $90,000 during those months.
But Lieberman reinforced his point that Trump didn’t get into these agreements for the money.
“If you know anything about the carousel, you know since Donald took it over, it’s been an incredible success story for New York City,” said Lieberman. “Before Trump got involved the carousel did not look at all what it looks like today. It was not properly maintained, was in disrepair, it was awful, and it’s such a beautiful landmark for New York City.”
When contacted last week, however, Levine reinforced his own position that the city should not be doing business with Trump.
“I don’t think New York City should be affording those privileges to people that could potentially damage our reputation,” he said.
Asked if there’s any political will in the city council to work on ending these agreements, Levine spokesperson Tyrone Stevens said it’s really up to the administration.
“This really isn’t about political will in the council since this would have to be taken up by the administration,” said Stevens. “Though I think there is widespread agreement that these contracts are less than ideal, members, including Mark, recognize the very real difficulty for the city to escape them.”