Nassau voters reject Coliseum referendum

Voters in Bellmore and Freeport share their opinions about voting for the new Coliseum. Videojournalists: Robert Cassidy and Mario Gonzalez (Aug. 1, 2011)

Voters in Bellmore and Freeport share their opinions about voting for the new Coliseum. Videojournalists: Robert Cassidy and Mario Gonzalez (Aug. 1, 2011)

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The answer is no.

Nassau County voters rejected Monday a referendum to authorize $400 million for a new Coliseum as a home for hockey's Islanders, a minor league ballpark and other economic development projects in the 77-acre Nassau hub area.

Shortly before midnight, County Executive Edward P. Mangano and Islanders owner Charles Wang conceded that the referendum was headed for failure. With 823 of 1,160 precincts reporting, the "yes" vote was 44,839 and the "no" vote, 60,228, elections officials said.

"Sound bites ruled the day, not the facts," Wang said before a crowd of supporters at Nassau Veterans Memorial Coliseum.

But in Nassau, residents had different views.

Irving and Alice Lyons walked out of a Uniondale polling place together and proclaimed that they had both voted no. For the couple, the decision was about taxes and traffic.

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"He can afford to build it himself," Irving Lyons said of Wang.

Peter Philippou, 28, of Mineola, said he interrupted bailing out his flooded basement to vote yes. For him, it was about the Islanders.

"I'm a lifelong fan," he said. "It's about time they got a new arena."

The critical vote may have determined the fate of the 39-year-old Nassau Veterans Memorial Coliseum and the Islanders, Long Island's only major-league sports franchise.

Earlier Monday, Republican County Executive Edward Mangano cast his "yes" vote at the John F. Kennedy Middle School in Bethpage and said he was hopeful other residents were doing the same.

"I feel very positive about how people are voting today," he said.

Voters interviewed throughout the day offered varying sentiments.

During an hourlong period outside the polling place at Hillside Grade School in New Hyde Park, 15 voters reported voting no and six said they voted in favor.

Lou Biancospino, 63, said he voted against the ballot measure. "The county can do a whole lot more with the $400 million than build a new arena," he said. "Taxes are destroying us and we're going to waste it on a hockey team?"

John Condon, 38, his two young children in tow, said he voted in favor because "I'm an Islander fan."

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Proponents had pegged a new arena as an essential cog in spurring economic development throughout the cash-strapped county and in creating 3,000 new permanent jobs.

Opponents warned of property tax hikes and noted that the borrowing over its 30-year life would have cost some $800 million.

The county would have retained all development rights for the acreage around the Coliseum.

The proposal would have kept the Islanders in Nassau until at least 2045. Wang has said the team will leave when its lease expires in 2015 if a new arena is not built. "I want to push this thing through," he said. ". . . I've got to get this thing built. If not, let's go on."

Mangano has said without an anchor tenant, the Coliseum would close, taking with it 2,600 jobs. The shortfall in sales tax revenue from a shuttered Coliseum would necessitate a $16 property tax increase, a county consultant said.

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The referendum would have allowed the county to borrow up to $350 million for a new Coliseum and up $50 million for a minor league baseball park at Mitchel Field, to be occupied by a new Independent League team owned by Frank Boulton, owner of Suffolk County's Long Island Ducks.

County officials have said the baseball park would have likely cost about $25 million, leaving another $25 million available for Hub development.

"It's time for a change," Vickie Eason, 52, of Freeport, said after voting "Yes" at the Caroline G. Atkinson School in Freeport. "From the look of it [the Coliseum], it needs renovation."

But Philip Jimenez, 61, of Freeport, said: "It irks me that it's Nassau County property and you have to pay to park."

If the referendum had been approved, it would have next gone before the 19-member Nassau County Legislature, which would require a supermajority of 13 members, including at least two Democrats, to guarantee passage. The Nassau Interim Finance Authority, which took control of the county's finances in January, also would have had to approve the lease agreement and bonding.

Construction on a new arena could have begun in June 2012. It remains to be seen if Wang will move the Islanders.

Mangano, meanwhile, has said he has a "Plan B" for the property but would not discuss it until after the vote.

In East Meadow, a five-minute drive from the Coliseum, a steady stream of voters braved the August heat and torrential afternoon storms.

At Barnum Woods Elementary School, Jack Wohl and his wife, Dolly, said they voted yes because of concerns that the Islanders would depart the region, leading to a closure of the arena.

"We need to retain people on Long Island," Dolly Wohl said. "It's important to keep Nassau County vibrant."

But at nearby Woodland Middle School, Candace Osias said she voted against the referendum.

"This is a great deal for Mr. Wang but a lousy deal for us," Osias said.

Voters in a handful of locations reported being asked to take off Islanders' gear before casting their ballots. Chris Anderson of Seaford said an elections official told him that he would not be allowed to vote unless he took off his Islanders jersey. Anderson complied.

Biamonte, the Democratic Board of Elections Commissioner, said voters are entitled to wear Islanders clothing as long as they do not attempt to influence other voters. "You don't give up your First Amendment rights when you go to vote," he said.

With John Valenti, Sid Cassese, Randi F. Marshall, William Murphy, Mikala Jamison and Candice Ruud.

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