Nassau County is skating on thin ice with its newest plan to keep the New York Islanders somehow tied to Long Island through a practice rink, offices and a pro shop in Cantiague Park.
The deal requires Nassau to renovate the rink at Cantiague, add a shop to sell Islanders merchandise, and construct a 35,000-square-foot building for team offices and training facilities. The team agrees to hold open practices and signing events, and to pay fees and a slice of revenue to Nassau. The Islanders will use the rink nearly whenever they want, though the county says this will be mostly on weekday mornings. The rink will be open to the public at other times.
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Well, the agreement could violate New York State's strict rules on when dedicated parkland can be used for private purposes. We'll let the courts sort that out, if they get involved, but if the law itself wasn't violated, certainly the spirit seems to have been.
Why is this a bad deal for Nassau residents?
Parks advocate Bruce Piel say it's not a true public use of a public park. He has written to New York Parks, Recreation and Historic Preservation Commissioner Rose Harvey asking her department to review the situation and bring any violations to court.
Nassau's agreement with the Islanders specifically tries to skirt alienation, which is the idea of repurposing or privatizing parkland, by calling the contract a "license," not a lease, and saying the team isn't a tenant. A spokesman for County Executive Edward Mangano labeled the deal a public-private partnership to improve recreational facilities, connect the Islanders to Long Island and add funds to county coffers.
The deal is an attempt to resolve a dispute over $4.5 million put in escrow by Islanders owner Charles Wang when he was collaborating with the county to build the Lighthouse Project, a $3.8 billion effort that would have renovated Nassau Coliseum and massively redeveloped the land around it. The Town of Hempstead blocked the project, the Islanders have left for Brooklyn and county residents are waiting to see what happens to the arena. The county and Wang got into a dispute about the money in escrow, and the Cantiague deal is a way to settle it. The county will use Wang's escrow funds -- plus $600,000 he's adding -- for changes to the rink and new construction.
None of the county's reasons for letting the Islanders use the park will matter if a court finds the deal improper. A new building for the team's corporate offices, training facilities and locker rooms clearly would not exist for public recreation or natural resource preservation. A rink used first by a professional hockey team, with the public getting the leftovers, would no longer be a truly public rink in a truly public park. And an Islanders store doesn't belong in a county park.
The state should carefully review the county's effort to "license" the park space to the Islanders. The attorney general may need to get involved. If the deal is ruled "alienation," Nassau would need the State Legislature's approval to move ahead. No financial dispute, revenue deal or remnant of a hockey team is worth giving away our public parkland.