Even without stimulus, Nassau committed to Lighthouse

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Islanders owner Charles Wang hopes the federal stimulus package can boost the progress of his Lighthouse project - a $700 million boost.

That's the size of the wish list his staff has presented to U.S. Sen. Charles Schumer (D-N.Y.) for roads and energy improvements. A mammoth sum, but it pales next to the $3.74 billion Wang and his partner, developer Scott Rechler, now estimate it will cost to redevelop the Nassau Coliseum area into the centerpiece of a New Suburbia.

Meanwhile, Nassau has applied for about $9 million in federal stimulus money to nudge its glacial planning process for transportation improvements by funding a "demonstration" bus service that County Executive Tom Suozzi hopes will provide a glimpse of what a more walkable county center could be.

The service would carry passengers from the Mineola train station to the Coliseum in 15 to 18 minutes, with a stop at Roosevelt Field mall. Another bus would run from the Hempstead station to the Coliseum.

It's all part of a drive by Suozzi and the developers to keep building momentum even through the economic downturn for the project on which they have staked so much.

Committed to success

While acknowledging that $700 million was probably unrealistic, Suozzi said he was committed to helping the developers succeed.

"I think the long-term success of the Lighthouse project is going to require that people can get from the Mineola train station to the Nassau Coliseum without taking the car," he said last week. "We need to start showing we can do that today, and not wait the six or seven months necessary for a light rail project to be implemented."

Lighthouse president Michael Picker said staff are preparing more detailed proposals to the state under the guidance of Schumer aides and are realistic about demands for money.

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But the Lighthouse developers say they also have an eye on other federal money that may become available later, arguing that dollars spent on Coliseum redevelopment will generate far more jobs and tax revenue than your average pothole repair or shoulder widening. The developers have promised to spend at least $55 million of their own money on trolleys and other improvements to accommodate the traffic they hope to generate.

"We are a catalyst," Wang said in an interview last week.

A long process

Wang said he has been frustrated by the pace of the town and county approval process and warned he may move the Islanders if a decision is not made soon. But he stresses he doesn't need to wait for a federally funded mass-transit linkage for the Nassau Hub: Nassau's planning process has gone on more than 10 years and will likely take at least another six or seven.

A study of the hub was funded by then-Sen. Alfonse D'Amato in 1998 but only begun in 2003, with 35 public meetings over two years to confirm the need for better mass transit in central Nassau and winnow more than two dozen proposals to improve it. Suozzi has spent the past few years lining up support for transit funding among local, state and federal agencies while pitching his vision of a more coherent hub to anybody who will listen.

That vision, laid out in county plans, includes an "emerald ribbon" of walkable greenways and bike paths that could wind all the way from Eisenhower Park past the Coliseum and Hofstra to Adelphi University.

"From Rexcorp Plaza to the Coliseum is a par-5 golf hole, but nobody would ever think of walking from one to the other - you'd take your life into your hands," said Suozzi, referring to Hempstead Turnpike.

The county also would ease travel along the "golden thread" of commercial establishments stretching from the Source Mall to Roosevelt Field, central Garden City and RXR Plaza.

The hub and Coliseum improvements are a "game changer," one of a small handful of projects viewed by policy makers as pivotally important to the region's future, said Long Island Regional Planning Board head Michael White.

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