The New York Islanders are moving to the Barclays Center in Brooklyn, leaving Nassau County with the challenge of developing the 77-acre Coliseum site and confronting the potential loss of thousands of jobs and millions of dollars in revenue.
After 40 years of hockey and decades of political infighting in Nassau County, Islanders owner Charles Wang and Barclays Center developer Bruce Ratner agreed on a 25-year lease in Brooklyn that will begin with the 2015-2016 season. The terms of the lease were not disclosed, but Wang said he will remain the full owner of the Islanders and indicated the deal was "ironclad," without an opt-out clause.
"We have tried very hard to keep the Islanders in their original home in Nassau County," Wang said during a news conference at Barclays. "Unfortunately, we were unable to achieve that dream."
Wang said the Islanders will retain their name and logo, and plan to honor their lease with the county by playing at Nassau Coliseum through the 2014-2015 season.
But county leaders said the impact of the team's departure would be enormous. As the region's only major professional sports team, the Islanders have a storied history, including four Stanley Cup championships in the early 1980s. Said former Islander and a current team vice president Mike Bossy: "I feel terrible that the team won't be there anymore."
What's more, before a Nassau referendum to build a new arena with $400 million in public funds failed last year, county officials said losing the Islanders could mean the loss of 2,660 jobs and $243.4 million in annual revenue.
"This is a total disgrace for Nassau County and for all of Long Island," said John Durso, who heads the Long Island Federation of Labor. "It's about failed leadership and I think the entire community should be up in arms over it."
County Executive Edward Mangano said Wednesday his administration did everything it could to keep the team and would now work to develop the site into a "vibrant destination and job creation center."
Nassau is preparing to announce a new master developer for the 77-acre site surrounding the Coliseum. County spokesman Brian Nevin said that decision was likely to come next week.
But Building & Construction Trades chief James Castellane said the Islanders' move sends a "terrible" message that "you just can't get anything done here."
Wang, who bought the Islanders in 2000, has tried to build a new arena at the Coliseum site since 2003. His $3.8 billion Lighthouse Project failed after the Town of Hempstead said it was too dense. The town then developed its own zone, which Wang and Mangano said was not "economically viable."
Developer Scott Rechler, who was Wang's partner in the Lighthouse Project and continues to be interested in the site, said he hopes Wang's decision to announce the move to Brooklyn now could give the county "a clean sheet of paper" in developing the area in the future.
Wang said Wednesday that he has been seeking other options for the Islanders, including those outside of New York, since shortly after the referendum failure last year. Talks with Ratner, whom Wang called a "dear friend," began in earnest seven months ago, he said. The deal was finalized Tuesday night and Wang informed Mangano Wednesday morning.
Wang said "there was not enough time" to wait for Nassau County to come up with another plan for a new arena.
While Brooklyn had always been an option for the Islanders, some had discounted it because of the relatively small size of the Barclays Center when outfitted for hockey. But National Hockey League Commissioner Gary Bettman said Wednesday that the arena fits 14,500 hockey fans and could be changed to allow at least 500 more.
Among Nassau leaders, the political finger-pointing continued even Wednesday. Mangano, a Republican, blamed his "political opponents" for the team's departure, while Democratic Minority Leader Kevan Abrahams (D-Freeport) called it "an epic failure of leadership at all levels." Even as Abrahams said the move would be a "crippling hit" on the local economy, Nassau comptroller George Maragos, a Republican, tried to minimize the impact, calling it potentially "marginal," if the Coliseum is filled with other events, such as additional concerts.
But former Suffolk County Executive Pat Halpin, who brought Wang and his former company, Computer Associates, to Long Island, said the Coliseum will be a "monument to the inability of public officials to lead."
"The Long Island officials have only themselves to blame," Halpin said. "They are the ones who failed to get it through."
With Celeste Hadrick, Neil Best, Patrick Whittle, Sid Cassese, Mark Harrington, Steve Zipay, Arthur Staple and John Valenti.