Two towns work on Ronkonkoma Hub

A file photo of MacArthur Airport.

A file photo of MacArthur Airport. Photo Credit: Newsday/John Paraskevas, 2010

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Suffolk's two largest towns, Brookhaven and Islip, are collaborating on an ambitious transit-focused project combining retail, office space and housing centered on the proposed Ronkonkoma Hub and the Long Island MacArthur Airport corridor.

The cooperative effort is a pitch to secure tens of millions of dollars in state and federal funds, Islip Town Supervisor Phil Nolan and Brookhaven Supervisor Mark Lesko said, and would create hundreds, possibly thousands, of jobs. The cost has not been determined.

The project would expand the planned development of Brookhaven's 50-acre Ronkonkoma Hub -- proposed for just east of the train station -- south and west into Islip Town. In all, more than 100 acres are involved.


'Synergy' between towns

"This is all about synergy between the two towns, maximizing our potential job creation opportunities," Nolan said. "We believe we have absolutely the best project on Long Island that we've heard anything about. And it's realistic."

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The push by the two Democratic supervisors comes amid a lingering economic downturn in which Long Island has lost 13,000 jobs in the past year. The region historically has not welcomed large-scale development, as shown by the failure of proposals such as the $3.8-billion Lighthouse project in Nassau and the 29,000-acre EPCAL project in Calverton.

But the supervisors say the latest project can succeed, as evidenced by four developers already expressing interest in the Hub and its unique transit-focused location.

The mix of residential and commercial development has yet to be determined.

Lesko said the project would pump money into the local economy and help boost the airport's role as an economic engine.

"With the economy the way it is, we can't afford not to do this," he said, citing the "revolutionary partnership" between the two towns.

"This is all about jobs, this is all about economic development and creating a true hub for Long Island at Ronkonkoma," he said.

Unlike many development proposals, in which a private developer approaches government with a concept, the towns are steering this one from the start, likely smoothing the path to any needed rezoning or other approvals.

Prof. Lee Koppelman of Stony Brook's Department of Political Science, a longtime regional planner and a consultant to the Town of Brookhaven, said he is familiar with the proposal and endorses its cooperative approach. He said the towns' collaboration is the first such intermunicipal agreement for a major economic development project on Long Island.

"The only cautionary word I have is, keep politics out of it and let it come to fruition as the good plan it is," Koppelman said.

Officials say the idea is to drive commerce to a unique locale, within two miles of three major highways, a short distance from the airport and train station and less than 60 miles east of Wall Street.

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"It's about realizing the economic potential of this extraordinarily unique spot," said Jim Morgo, Brookhaven's economic development coordinator and chairman of the Suffolk County Industrial Development Agency.


Bolstering infrastructure

Key to the development are plans to bolster the area's infrastructure with a new sewage treatment plant on county land in Islip, close to the Long Island Rail Road tracks. Discussions between the town and county are well advanced. Funding for that project, estimated to cost around $30 million, has not been decided, but a combination of state, county and private money is possible, officials said.

The overall project, which has the backing of County Executive Steve Levy, also envisions shrinking the LIRR parking lot by building multistoried parking garages to free up more land for development.

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Desmond Ryan, executive director of the Association for a Better Long Island and an opponent of the failed proposal to borrow $400 million to build a new Nassau Coliseum and a minor league ballpark, called the Hub proposal "unprecedented."

"It would lead to a comprehensive economic development around the train station and a dynamic synergy with the airport that is badly needed," he said.

Brookhaven Town Monday will issue a request for qualifications for a master developer for the 50-acre Hub project. Tuesday, the Islip and Brookhaven town boards are due to vote on an intermunicipal agreement formalizing the collaboration. Brookhaven is to name its master developer in early December. Islip is likely to adopt the same master developer, senior town officials said.


Hopes for airport

Lesko said he hoped the joint development would enhance Islip's efforts to lure another airline to MacArthur Airport. Islip officials have long sought to bring airport operations closer to the railroad station. A $100-million development of aviation-related buildings to the west of the main terminal already is under way. The sewage treatment plant is essential to permitting this and other development along the airport's perimeter, officials said.

For one carrier Islip is actively wooing -- JetBlue -- the broader economic downturn is still limiting expansion plans. "We would look very closely at the development proposal as we consider new destinations, but as of now we have no immediate plans for service out of Islip," spokeswoman Jenny Dervin said.

Nolan and Lesko, both running for re-election in November, are members of Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo's Long Island Regional Economic Development Council, one of 10 such councils statewide charged with drawing up a five-year economic strategy and given until mid-November to identify key development projects to submit to Albany. With Randi Marshall

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