MINEOLA, N.Y. – A day after voters soundly defeated the idea of borrowing US$400 million for a new arena, NHL commissioner Gary Bettman said Tuesday that the league would strive to keep the New York Islanders from leaving town when the team’s lease expires in 2015.
Meanwhile, Nassau County officials announced plans to open the 77-acre parcel to any developer interested in proposing new ideas for the site.
Voters, in a rare mid-summer referendum, rejected a plan that would have replaced the 39-year-old coliseum, as well as develop a nearby minor league ballpark and possibly an indoor track and field facility. According to unofficial results from Monday’s vote, the referendum failed 57 per cent to 43 per cent.
Nassau County residents pay some of the highest property taxes in the country, and although supporters of the referendum claimed tax increases would average $14 to $58 a year, most voters opted against spending public money to benefit the privately owned sports franchise.
The county is currently under the thumb of a state-appointed fiscal watchdog after citing a budget deficit of more than $100 million earlier this year. In late June, 128 county workers were laid off in a budget-cutting measure.
County Executive Edward Mangano backed the referendum as a way of keeping the hockey team from leaving as well as to spur economic development and job growth. He said he would welcome proposals from Islanders owner Charles Wang and anyone else.
Wang, whose 2003 plan for a multibillion-dollar private development of the property foundered amid community opposition, was expected to issue a statement on Wednesday, a team spokeswoman said.
After the vote Monday night, Wang said he was heartbroken but did not want to make any immediate pronouncements about the team’s future. He promised to honour the team’s lease through 2015.
Bettman said in a statement Tuesday that the league would work with the Islanders “to explore whatever options still may be available in light of what obviously is not a positive development. Our goal is for the team to remain on Long Island and we still hope that objective can be realized.”
Mangano said he wants to keep the hockey team in the county but was willing to listen to alternate ideas for the land.
“I encourage all those with a plan to contact the county immediately,” he said. He set a deadline of Aug. 12 for developers to submit proposals but conceded he would extend the time period if necessary.
The Association for a Better Long Island, a real estate group that opposed the referendum, issued a conciliatory statement after Mangano’s announcement.
“He has appropriately challenged the private sector to present to him innovative ideas and options that achieve the strategic objective of a new coliseum and synergistic development,” said ABLI board member Vincent Polimeni. “We accept that challenge.”
Because Wang has said he would have to consider his options for the team’s future should the referendum fail, some have speculated he could either sell the franchise or move to another city. The computer software mogul said last week he has lost nearly $240 million since buying the team 11 years ago.
Some have suggested the team could move to the new basketball arena being built in Brooklyn. One Suffolk County politician lobbied Wang last week to consider moving to eastern Long Island.
Veteran hockey broadcaster and writer Stan Fischler said Monday’s vote is not the final chapter in the Islanders’ story in Nassau County.
“There are reasons to be optimistic about them staying,” Fischler told The Associated Press in a telephone interview, citing cities that said no to new arenas and stadiums only to get them later.
“What happened last night is not going to be the Great Wall,” he said. “It’s an obstacle that they’ll surmount some way or other.”
Despite having the lowest average attendance and finishing with the second fewest wins in the league last season, he predicted better results in the future.
“The team is one of the most promising teams in the NHL. You can ask any hockey expert. They’ve got a young core,” he said. “It’s very easy to say they’re going to leave and go to Brooklyn or they’re going to leave and go to Flushing and Suffolk County. But this is a prime spot that they’re in now.”