Friends bring in funding, and also the public

At the Friends of Hudson River Park’s gala in October 2016, among the high-powered stars walking the “green carpet,” were Matthew Broderick and Sarah Jessica Parker. Others included Martha Stewart and Padma Lakshmi. Photos by Lincoln Anderson

BY SYDNEY PEREIRA | The nonprofit fundraising arm of the Hudson River Park Trust began in 1996 as an independent watchdog group known as the Hudson River Park Alliance. In 1998, that group morphed into the Friends of Hudson River Park. In the past two decades, the group has transformed into a multimillion-dollar fundraising venture and recently was redubbed the Hudson River Park Friends.

The Friends raked in some $8 million in Fiscal Year 2017, much of which was raised through its annual gala where a table of 10 guests can run from $25,000 to $50,000.

Despite the millions the Friends has brought in over the years, it’s still only a sliver of what the Trust — the state-city authority that operates and is building the park — needs to finish construction of the waterfront park. But the Friends also functions as a way to engage the neighborhood with the goal of reaching the park’s eventual completion.

“In addition to the money that Friends raises, there’s also a public engagement component,” Connie Fishman, the group’s executive director, said. “People become ‘Park Friends.’ We have a program that they become members of and they get involved. They volunteer.”

Community engagement and advocacy by residents is part of what keeps the park going, which Fishman said became readily apparent after Hurricane Sandy destroyed the playground at Tribeca’s Pier 25. The following spring after the hurricane, the playground was reopened with much fanfare.

“Maybe it’s crazy?” Can this park ever be finished? Madelyn Wils, the Hudson River Park Trust’s C.E.O., posed with the singer CeeLo on the “green carpet” at the Friends’ gala in 2016.

But there have been ebbs and flows of the organization’s fundraising efforts. For example, the Friends raised nearly $3 million more in Fiscal Year 2017 than the year before.

Plus, when a local councilmember whose district includes the park is the speaker of the City Council, the Friends typically sees more government funding, Fishman said. Based on precedent, the Friends hopes to see more government contributions with Councilmember Corey Johnson as the new speaker. (His predecessor in representing District 3, as well as serving as speaker, was Christine Quinn.)

Though not government funding, but possibly impacted by current government policy, individual private donations could be affected by President Donald Trump’s recent tax overhaul passed late last year. This could particularly impact people who donate to charities primarily for tax deductions.

“Nobody really knows what the effect is going to be, so we’re trying to be fairly conservative,” Fishman noted. How Trump’s tax plan affects the Friends’ fundraising likely won’t be seen until December, when many people scramble to donate to nonprofit groups, the executive director said.

Besides the Friends’ fundraising efforts — which focus on initiatives like public programming, public events, playgrounds and landscaping — the park is financed through myriad sources, from public and private funds to revenue generation from specific piers.

“It’s a unique situation relative to other parks in New York City,” Scott Lawin, vice chairperson of the Friends’ board of directors, said of the park’s public-private partnership model. “The main thing that we’re constantly focused on is just getting the message out about the needs of the park and making people aware that the park does need their support. It’s easy for people to say, ‘I pay my taxes, so it should be covered by that.’

“That, unfortunately, doesn’t get anything done,” Lawin not.

The playground at Chelsea Waterside Park — a major effort funded by the Friends — was another example of connecting park to neighborhood.

“We were able to really explain to folks the current state of playgrounds and what the vision was for repairing and upgrading that facility,” Lawin said. “That was kind of a textbook case of ‘give where you live.’ ”

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