The following was written for the Long Island Press. You can read the original here.
As the New York Islanders get ready to face off against the Chicago Blackhawks this Friday in Brooklyn, die-hard Nassau hockey fans like County Executive Ed Mangano can be forgiven for sounding rather wistful, if deluded, about the future. But it’s time they face up to reality.
In an interview with WFAN last month, Mangano said, “I certainly do believe that we will see the return of the Islanders at some point.”
Conveniently, or willfully, he ignored the terms of the Islanders’ binding commitment to the Barclays Center, and held out hope that a revamped facility at the site of their former home, the now empty Nassau Coliseum, would be a magnet for them or another top team.
“I think that this arena is going to be very attractive to professional sports,” he enthused.
Like most of the policies that come out of Mineola these days, Nassau’s dreams of the Islanders’ making a triumphant return to Uniondale are unfounded. The question is: Does the future of the Hempstead Hub depend on the Islanders?
On Aug. 1, 2011, Nassau residents voted a resounding NO when asked if they were willing pay for a brand new Coliseum in what the New York Daily News Editorial Team deemed, “a cockamamie scheme.” To highlight just how backwards the whole saga was, the non-binding referendum to approve $400 million in borrowing cost the bankrupt county $2 million – all because the special election took place on a Monday in August – a move the same Daily News editors called “an obvious tactic to catch voters napping.”
After the rejection at the voting booth, Nassau had to go back to the drawing board. Currently, Forest City Ratner, which also owns the Barclays Center in Brooklyn, is planning to spend over $260 million to renovate the aging Coliseum ($130 million of that money is for the coliseum alone), as well as develop a mix of entertainment and retail uses on the site. Pair these efforts with Memorial Sloan Kettering Cancer Center’s plans for a $140 million facility with garages, and the total investment in the area is sizable.
Will the lure of shiny new development projects lure the Islanders back to Nassau County with a Siren’s song? In the immortal words of Brooklyn: Fugheddaboutit!
According to B.D. Gallof, who has been covering the Islanders for over eight years for CBS NY, the Huffington Post, as well for theFourthPeriod.com, it’s extremely unlikely, especially because the National Hockey League team is selling more tickets to Long Islanders than it initially expected. Overall, the presence of Long Islanders at Barclays is small potatoes for the Isles’ marketing strategy.
“Their long-term plan is to chip away more and more into the Brooklyn and Manhattan market,” Gallof said. “The fact is, out of 8,000-8,500 season tickets sold, at even 30 percent coming from Long Island, you are talking about roughly 3,000 people. Long Island fans, unless they can up that percentage, are just going to be along for the ride as many new fans are being cultivated and infused into the season-ticket holder base.”
Gallof had strong words concerning the logistics of the Islanders returning. “The Islanders’ 25-year-lease includes an opt-out provision in five years that leads hopeful fans astray,” he said. “What is not reported is that it is a mutual opt-out, meaning that the Isles would need to mutually agree with Barclays.”
Is Mangano correct to go on sports radio and tout a false promise for hopeful fans? Probably not. Does the return of NHL hockey or any other professional sports franchise to Nassau County matter? That remains to be seen. The intersection of sports, politics and development is a messy one.
From a planning perspective, success at the Hub isn’t measured by whether or not a pro sports team is present, but rather, what can policymakers do with the reality that there won’t be one any time soon (if ever). The county must avoid falling into the all-too easy trap of building yet another retail, restaurant and movie theater complex when it has the chance to truly transform these 77 prime acres in the heart of Nassau County with something unique.
The supposed presence of biotech is appealing, but like so many schemes to come out of Mineola these days, very large questions loom over the realism of the proposal: namely, who, exactly, is going to fund the $225 million that is needed for the project, the expansion of NICE (which is already cutting back service due to the county’s anemic support of mass transit), and all the other amenities that the county says it wants at the Hub?
The plans, while ambitious, fail where so many municipal plans wind up failing – in its critical implementation phase. Unless New York State is serious about providing ample fiscal support, Mangano’s portion of the project will be a nonstarter, limiting the potential of the private pieces of this complex puzzle.
Nassau’s policymakers and residents should stop wasting their energy hoping for the return of the Islanders. It’s not going to happen. Instead, they should focus their efforts on leveraging Forest City Ratner and Memorial Sloan Kettering’s investment at the site with public investment.
Publically subsidizing a new venue for a pro-sports team is a known fiscal loser for taxpayers, but devoting public resources to subsidize innovative land uses that can help Long Island’s lagging economy is a worthy investment. Nassau’s voters were right to reject a new coliseum for the Islanders – but it’s up to elected officials to think beyond the Islanders, or any pro sports team for that matter, and be creative with this prime acreage. That being said, policymakers must also be smart with their fiscal management and implementation.
New York State has the opportunity to fund an ambitious proposal in a county that has been lacking ambition for some time.
Nassau County’s future isn’t in the hands of a pro sports franchise, but rather, it can be found in the smart allocation of public resources and sound land use planning.