County vs. Nassau Coliseum: A fight that's about more than money

The New York Islanders and Nassau Coliseum's management The New York Islanders and Nassau Coliseum's management company, SMG, owe Nassau County as much as $3.8 million in unpaid rent, utilities and other expenses for the Coliseum dating back to at least 2011, records show. (Oct. 24, 2012) Photo Credit: Newsday / J. Conrad Williams Jr.

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Joye Brown Newsday columnist Joye Brown

Joye Brown has been a columnist for Newsday since 2006. She joined the newspaper in 1983 and has ...

The squabble over who owes whom millions of dollars in rent, utilities and other Nassau Coliseum-related expenses is the latest bitter reminder of the fall of the county's once-proud entertainment venue.

Nassau County is seeking as much as $3.8 million from the Islanders and facility manager SMG for unpaid bills dating to 2011, according to a Newsday report.

Nassau -- which is facing prospective budget holes of tens of millions of dollars as a result of two recent court decisions -- is right to go after the much-needed revenue.

Complicating the quest is another wrinkle: According to a county lawmaker and others, Nassau itself fell significantly behind in repairs and other maintenance-related duties it was contractually obligated to perform at the arena.

Without disclosing precise numbers, county officials contend that Nassau is still owed millions of dollars, even when the cost of the repair work is factored in.

But this is about more than a fight over money. It's about the last undeveloped commercial property of significant acreage in Nassau -- and the fallow territory it has become.

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The Coliseum, as any recent visitor can attest, is weary, with cracks in the pavement outside, too few bathrooms and corridors that, compared with newer entertainment venues, seem cramped.

It doesn't help that the coliseum is surrounded by 77 acres of blacktop and the Long Island Marriott, also owned by Wang, which, according to Fitch Ratings, was said to be facing "imminent default" on a $103.5 million loan.

And let's not forget that the Islanders will be leaving in 2015.

Yes, County Executive Edward Mangano has brought in a developer, Donald Monti, to revamp the property. And, yes, Monti wants to transform the area into a biotech campus featuring a scaled-down arena.

But as yet there's no money to fund the proposal. And there's no proposal before the Town of Hempstead, which controls the area's zoning.

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Meanwhile, residents are still waiting to hear from Barclays Center developer Bruce Ratner, who was asked by Mangano to analyze potential uses for the Coliseum.

Until the redevelopment pieces fall into place, however, the state of Nassau's Hub remains in flux -- just as it has for almost two decades.

It might pain some Nassau residents to see Ratner's Barclays Center doing so incredibly well. The venue has boosted the surrounding community in Downtown Brooklyn, and increased ridership on the Long Island Rail Road as customers flock there for events.

Ratner's plans for the area around Barclays include retail, office and residential space -- some of the same amenities Charles Wang proposed more than a decade ago as a way to redevelop the Hub area and jump-start Nassau's economic engine.

Back then, it was Wang's dream. Now, it has become Nassau's necessity. A fight over electricity, utilities and maintenance at a weary Coliseum, a venue that was once home to the New York Nets, and that over the years showcased every big act from Elvis Presley to Bruce Springsteen to Billy Joel?

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It feels, somehow, like a beloved first car being raided for parts. It's long past time for something better.

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