UNIONDALE, N.Y. - A suburban county placed under a state fiscal watchdog earlier this year will ask voters this summer to let it borrow US$400 million to replace the New York Islanders' aging arena, as well as construct a minor league baseball park nearby.
If approved, the proposal to replace the Nassau Veterans Memorial Coliseum will keep the NHL team on Long Island until 2045, Nassau County Executive Edward Mangano said at a raucous news conference Wednesday. The event at the nearly 40-year-old arena featured several hundred union workers in the grandstands chanting "build it now," as well as a smattering of Islanders fans decked out in the team's blue and orange jerseys.
Mangano insisted that revenue from the Islanders and sales tax generated by the new arena would be enough to repay the $400 million in bonds over the course of a new 30-year lease for the team, although neither he nor Islanders owner Charles Wang offered specifics on the financial arrangement. The cost of the new arena would be approximately $350 million and the new baseball park would be $50 million, officials said.
Long Island currently has a minor league baseball park in Central Islip, which is home to the Atlantic League's Long Island Ducks. It was not clear what team would call the new Nassau ballpark home.
The Islanders' current lease at the coliseum expires in 2015. Mangano said if residents approve the borrowing plan in an Aug. 1 vote, construction of the new arena should be completed by then.
He repeatedly insisted that no taxpayer money would be used to finance the project. The county, which is facing a $176 million budget deficit, is under the thumb of a state fiscal watchdog, which has approval over most contracts and other deals involving county finances. The watchdog, the Nassau Interim Finance Authority, said in a statement that it was "deeply concerned" about Mangano's plan.
"There was no consultation with NIFA regarding this major proposal announced today," the statement said. The group said it was awaiting details of the plan, which "must be evaluated in the context of the county's fiscal crisis, the wage freeze on county employees and the reductions in services to county residents."
Mangano had said earlier he will let voters decide.
"This referendum will allow residents to decide whether we should build a sports-entertainment destination at the site of Nassau Coliseum," he said.
Mangano, who had previously discussed placing a casino on the 77-acre coliseum site in the heart of the county, changed direction Wednesday and said officials would now begin negotiating with the Shinnecock Indian tribe to construct a gambling facility at nearby Belmont Park racetrack in Elmont.
Shinnecock tribal chairman Randy King, who was in the audience for the news conference, said afterward that the tribe is considering several locations for a Long Island casino but has not settled on a specific site. He welcomed the opportunity to discuss a casino plan for the racetrack, which is located just over the New York City line and is accessible by a number of major highways, as well as a Long Island Rail Road station. There are no rail connections at the coliseum site.
The tribe concluded a decades-long battle last year for federal recognition, a prerequisite for any tribe wishing to operate a casino. Leaders of the Southampton-based Shinnecock have conceded it is unlikely they would open a casino on their native land on far eastern Long Island, and have begun negotiations with elected officials in several locations about where to place a casino, or casinos.
The arena proposal gives new life to Wang's desire to replace the coliseum, which opened in 1972. In 2003, he had proposed to build a $3.8 billion complex on the coliseum site that would have included retail shopping, high-rise apartments and a self-financed new hockey arena. Local community opposition, including fears about traffic, helped kill the plan.
Wang said Wednesday he did not want to revisit past disappointments, but said he was "extremely confident" the latest proposal would succeed. "Our commitment to Long Island has never wavered," said the businessman who has owned the team for 10 years.
Jim Castellane, president of the Nassau-Suffolk Building Trades unions, applauded the proposal.
"With unemployment reaching 30 per cent in the trade sector, this project is critical to the 65,000 workers I represent," he said.
Sports fans on Long Island had differing views on whether they would vote to approve the bonding plan.
"I think the way the economy is now people just can't afford it," said Warren Beck, of Syosset.
Brian McColdrick, of Manhasset, said he would vote for the plan.
"I think it needs to be done and it's good for the people in the long run," he said.