Imagine if everything had gone differently.

Imagine if everyone had vision. County officials would have wrangled infrastructure dollars. Local officials would have incorporated more density into the suburban landscape. And a team owner would have tried to compromise a bit more.

Today, we'd be eating at a restaurant at the Hub and shopping at new stores. We'd be walking along Celebration Plaza, enjoying the open space and this week's 70-degree temps. We'd be going to New York Islanders games at a thoroughly redone Nassau Coliseum. We'd be seeing the construction of housing, a hotel and a convention center that we knew would complete Nassau County's new downtown.

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"Meet me at the Lighthouse," we'd say -- and it wouldn't be a joke, the way it is now.

After everything, the land around Nassau Coliseum remains an asphalt wasteland, and the arena lies bare and dark.

Thursday, county and business officials celebrated a poor substitute for what could have been. They whooped and they applauded. They broke ground -- or, rather, broke a wall -- on a renovation that will produce a shiny version of the same arena with fewer seats. Sure, it'll have a new facade, paint and bathrooms. Perhaps, eventually, there'll be some restaurants and stores on the surrounding land, too.

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But it's a far cry from what could have been -- and it's not worth cheering for.

It's been more than a decade since the Lighthouse Project was first proposed. There've been ins and outs and ups and downs. There were news conferences and rallies featuring everyone from then-Gov. David A. Paterson to Sen. Chuck Schumer. There were promises of federal money, pledges of community support, songs, banners, and Islanders fans who attended every meeting, yelling "Build it Now!" at every opportunity.

And there were hours of raucous hearings, where it seemed Hempstead Town board members had already decided against the grandiose vision of Islanders owner Charles Wang, who had brought in developer Scott Rechler to help.

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Still, there was a vision that might have given the county something new: an economically vibrant center.

But politics and fear triumphed. Hempstead Town Supervisor Kate Murray spent months refusing to even meet with Wang, and she and her town board, and other politicians around them, became an angry swell against the project. At an all-day public hearing in August 2009, held at Hofstra University to accommodate the crowd of mostly supportive residents and Islanders fans, it became clear: It was ugly -- and it was over.

For years afterward, people tried. The new zoning Hempstead eventually adopted didn't support a profitable yet meaningful project. No other attempt in the years that followed, from casinos to referendums, contained vision or creativity, or economic reason or thought. All failed -- and the Islanders moved to Brooklyn.

Now, here we are, a county in deep financial trouble, with sagging sales tax revenue and billions of dollars of debt, a town without an economic anchor, and residents still searching for jobs, housing and that sense of place.

There's some hope, of course, for a bustling arena and new biotechnology employers and jobs and economic growth. Perhaps some of it will come to pass. But don't let County Executive Edward Mangano, developer Bruce Ratner or anyone else fool you into thinking that Nassau won something Thursday. The groundbreaking was a reminder of disheartening loss -- the final blow, with sledgehammer and all, to what was once possible.

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Randi F. Marshall is a member of Newsday's editorial board. This is her debut column.