Is Nassau arena the real deal?

An aerial view of the Nassau Coliseum. In An aerial view of the Nassau Coliseum. In the foreground is the Long Island Marriott Hotel. (May 11, 2011) Photo Credit: Kevin P. Coughlin

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Nassau Executive Edward Mangano says he wants to "deal with reality" in meeting the formidable challenges of bringing a new sports-entertainment complex as well as Indian gaming to a beleaguered county. But his latest proposal may still be just a dream.

Mangano deserves credit for trying to move forward the stalled development at the area in Uniondale known as the Hub. The last big idea, Charles Wang's Lighthouse Project, which would have used private capital to build a new Coliseum, went off the boards when the Town of Hempstead refused to change the zoning.

For Mangano to get the job done now, he'll have to convince voters that borrowing $400 million to publicly finance this new complex won't cost an extra dime. These are the same residents who pay among the highest property taxes in the nation, who just had their police, youth and senior services cut, and whose workers just got a pay freeze.

Mangano says this will all work out in the end because the county legislature and the Nassau Interim Finance Authority must approve all contracts. But NIFA is already skeptical. And asking the voters to approve this deal upfront, without any guarantees, might be asking too much.

To give his public financing proposal more credibility, Mangano has asked a panel of county elders to identify and even recruit complementary development of the 77 acres of county-owned land around the arena. But this panel also must provide a reality check. A good start was made by tapping Frank Zarb, who led NIFA efforts to save the county the last time it was headed toward bankruptcy. However, the panel should do even more and provide its opinion on whether income from the lease and sales taxes would cover the cost of borrowing an estimated $25 million to $40 million a year.

Beyond making sure taxpayers are not saddled with a hidden tax increase, perhaps the panel can provide some guidance on whether the $350-million price tag is a bit extravagant. A municipally owned arena should be functional for sports and entertainment and a welcoming venue for ticketholders, not the Taj Mahal. And before voters are asked to approve an additional $50 million for a minor league baseball stadium, there should at least be written statements of interest from more than one team or franchise. Before we build it, let's make sure they will come.

And there's one more cost estimate required: How much will this special referendum on Aug. 1 cost a county that is broke? In addition, not allowing it to appear on the top of the ballot in November has the hint of politics. Is the promised union support that's supposed to carry the day for the referendum not the turnout that Mangano's fellow Republicans want to see at the polls when control of the legislature is in play?

The one real benefit of this new proposal is Mangano's recognition that his initial plan to get a casino at the Hub was a loser. He now supports one at Belmont Park, the only logical spot for Shinnecock gaming if the tribal nation can get state and federal approval.

Mangano's embrace of "reality" is a welcome change in his governing style. Without some more details, however, his latest plan for the Hub may not be the real deal. hN

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