The following was first published on The Foggiest Idea on April 16, 2018.
After Suffolk County’s sudden announcement on April 8 that it had accepted a proposal to build a 17,500-seat arena on a 40-acre stretch of vacant land between MacArthur Airport and the Ronkonkoma train station, many people in the county made it clear to The Foggiest Idea that residents, elected officials and even county policymakers—the driving force of community planning efforts—said they’d been left in the dark.
To understand what had happened here, TFI researched the county’s Request for Qualifications process. The RFQ isn’t to be taken lightly. The stakes are high. This allegedly privately funded project might cost more than $1 billion, according to John Cameron, managing partner of Cameron Engineering, based in Woodbury, who’s involved in the proposal by Chicago real-estate developer Jones Lang LaSalle and investment banker Ray Bartoszek, reportedly a minority owner of the New York Yankees.
For central Suffolk County, this development is monumental. It calls for 200,000 square feet of commercial office space, 160,000 square feet of medical research space, and 90,000 square feet of retail and dining, plus a 500-room hotel and two community ice rinks. It would be anchored by the 17,500-seat arena. For perspective, the proposed venue at Belmont Park is expected to have 19,000 seats, while the newly renovated Nassau Coliseum is slated to hold 13,900. JLL also offered a smaller, 8,000-seat venue as another option.
Currently the site is home to parking for the LIRR’s Ronkonkoma train station. JLL’s arena proposal apparently beat three other projects that were pitched through Suffolk’s RFQ process, which began in August 2016, when civic leaders started exploring alternate uses for the 40 or so acres and continued until this spring.
Submissions by developers were due in Hauppauge by mid-December 2017. Two mailers with the county’s return address were sent to the community in 2017. In March 2018 a meeting was held to showcase the four RFQ responses. TFI reviewed a mailer that gave notice about this session, which included details about each proposal. County sources with direct knowledge of the RFQ process told TFI that around 100 people attended the March public session. Surprisingly no media were present.
For most of the public, they got their first glimpse of the different proposals when they saw the April 7th cover of Newsday, complete with a splashy rendering of JLL’s arena. By the evening of Sunday, April 8, the county’s decision on the winning RFQ submission had been made by four unelected county economic development officials: Louis Bekofsky, Suffolk’s deputy commissioner of economic development and planning; Theresa Ward, the commissioner of economic development and planning; Jonathan Keyes, the county director of downtown and transit-oriented development; and Lisa Black, chief of staff to Suffolk County Executive Steve Bellone.
Suffolk’s surprising announcement to the general public, as well as the county’s seemingly quick pick, raised both consternation and questions across our region. Many sources across Suffolk County government all told The Foggiest Idea that they were caught off guard by the JLL’s accelerated acceptance coming so soon after it had just become known to Long Islanders. Some insiders even expressed their amazement at the arena concept itself.
A cornerstone of any community planning effort worth its salt is public participation. Why did Suffolk County seemingly shy away from the public eye, save for a few civic leaders and unelected officials’ knowing that a selection would be?
Sources in the Bellone administration tell TFI that the timing isn’t at all suspicious.
Local groups such as the Lakeland Fire Department, Ronkonkoma Chamber of Commerce, Ronkonkoma Civic Association and others in the immediate area reportedly knew that an arena was always a possibility. Sources told The Foggiest Idea that they believed the county conveyed the attitude that something big would be built, and its officials may as well decide what the final project would be. The word “hubris” was tossed around in multiple conversations about the process.
Suffolk County Legislator Tom Cilmi (R-Bay Shore), the county legislature’s minority leader, represents the area where a new arena would be built. Cilmi said that the RFQ exercise occurred over what he called a “fairly significant amount of time,” but he was left out of the final selection and that left him seething.
“They should have included me in the decision-making process,” he said. “I guess they considered the five minutes I spent with them at the presentation getting my input. But no. I got a phone call from a Newsday reporter Sunday night at 9:30 p.m. to ask me for a comment on the county’s decision.”
“It is the process that really bothers me,” he added. “I am a representative, and while I have an opinion, my responsibility is to represent the best interests of the folks in the district that I am elected to serve.”
To Cilmi, communication is key. “The county should have done a better job of sharing the four proposals with all the residents in Ronkonkoma prior to selecting one of the four proposals.”
Although Cilmi said he preferred the arena to the other options presented, he noted that substantial questions remain regarding traffic, community support, and how to secure a sports franchise to anchor the proposed venue.
The legislator’s concerns have merit. According to Newsday, the New York Islanders won’t be playing in Ronkonkoma anytime soon.
“We have no real knowledge of what’s going on in Suffolk,” Islanders co-owner Jon Ledecky told Newsday. “It’s not relevant to us.”
Like most other things on Long Island, what’s old is new again.
“The county has been toying with the idea of building a coliseum for nearly half a century,” observed Dr. Lee Koppelman, a former regional planner for Nassau and Suffolk counties who is now the executive director of the Center for Regional Policy Studies at Stony Brook University. Koppelman was referring to the fate that befell the Long Island Arena, a 4,000-seat venue in Commack, which closed its doors for good in 1996. Built in 1956 on Vets Highway, it used to host hockey games and briefly the New York Nets basketball team as well as rock concerts, presidential campaign appearances and even a flea market before it fell on hard times.
Thanks to Koppelman, Suffolk County worked to electrify the LIRR’s mainline out to Ronkonkoma in 1988, setting the stage for projects like TRITEC’s Ronkonkoma Hub and the latest batch of RFQ proposals.
“An arena is an interesting idea, and given its location near the railroad, it isn’t out of harmony with surrounding uses,” said the esteemed master planner, adding that he’d still like to see a business plan. “The question is: Does Long Island, meaning Nassau and Suffolk, really need another arena?”
Richard Murdocco is an award-winning columnist and adjunct professor in Stony Brook University’s public policy graduate program. He regularly writes and speaks about Long Island’s real estate development issues. More of his views can be found on thefoggiestidea.org or follow him on Twitter @thefoggiestidea. You can email Murdocco at Rich@TheFoggiestIdea.org.