Pols, Activists Rally for Governors Island Funding

It was a sea of watery witticisms on the steps of City Hall this afternoon, as supporters of Governors Island, clad in orange lifejackets, gathered to protest the Island’s omission from the state budget. Beneath an inflatable 22-foot curved pink tube, their signs ranged from the predictably maritime — “Keep the Island Afloat!” “Don’t Let Governor’s Island Sink!” — to the brutally honest — “Our Green Space Needs Your Green” — to the oddly seductive — “It Could Be Paterson’s Island.”

But Governor Paterson doesn’t seem to want Governors Island. Facing a $14 billion budget gap, the governor  failed to fund the state’s half of the island’s $15 million operating cost from his proposed budget, and the city is expected to follow suit. That leaves the island without a single committed dollar for next year, with only a month left until the April 1 deadline for a state budget. All eyes are on Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver, who has publicly trumpeted the park and is a key figure in budget negotiations.

The island has no residents to carp about budget cuts; but as was made clear by the 70 or so gathered in life jackets, what it does have is an array of advocacy groups and elected officials who are happy to clamor for more funding.

“I, for one, want to send a small little life raft to this Island, because some day there’s going to be a ferry, and learning institutions, and recreation in ways we can’t imagine,” said Manhattan Borough President Scott Stringer. Mr. Stringer’s office has already contributed money toward a new Visitor’s Center on the Island. “But what’s the point of a Visitor’s Center if you have nothing to visit?” Stringer said.

The Visitor’s Center was just one of a long (and creative) list of justifications for funding the Island. A handful of speakers floated a variety of reasons – everything from keeping Wall Street “vibrant,” to attracting tourists, to giving Little League baseball teams more space, to ensuring New York looks good for the anniversary of Dutch settlement.

“The state is planning all kinds of celebrations for the 400th anniversary and there is supposed to be one on Governors Island,” said Peg Breen, president of the New York Landmarks Conservancy.  “How embarrassing for the Dutch to come over and we say, ‘Sorry, we shut down where you first settled.'”

Murray Fisher, founder and president of the New York Harbor School, worried that the cuts would thwart his school’s planned move to the island. The Harbor School currently operates in Bushwick, Brooklyn – “the farthest you can be in New York City from the water,” Fisher pointed out – but in November 2006, he was told the 400-student school would become the island’s’ first full-time tenant. The school is hoping to move into a converted hospital on Governors Island in 2010, but Mr. Fisher says he’s uncertain whether the move can go forward without an operating budget for the island.

The hospital-turned-Harbor School is just one of more than 75 buildings on Governors Island, with more than a million square feet of indoor space. The city and state have already invested more than $140 million in rehabilitating the buildings and reinvigorating the island. “The minute there are not people out there maintaining those buildings, they start deteriorating. … It doesn’t make any sense. Keep the money flowing,” Ms. Breen said.

“Without these funds, Governors Island will be a ghost town this year,” said Congressman Jerrold Nadler, who congratulated himself on securing $1.8 million in earmarks for the island in the federal budget passed by the House this week, and Mr. Nadler said a few additional million could come from the stimulus bill.  “It would be awfully ironic if there were nothing to do there. … It would be a terrible shame to waste those federal dollars,” Mr. Nadler said. “Except for a few governors down South, we don’t turn away that money.  It’s free money for the city and the state.”

Pols, Activists Rally for Governors Island Funding