Nassau County wants voters to approve a referendum to borrow up to $400 million for a new arena that would keep the Islanders on Long Island through at least 2045 and also finance construction of a minor-league ballpark.
Pending approval by the county legislature, the referendum would be set for Aug. 1, County Executive Edward Mangano said in an interview Tuesday with Newsday.
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If passed by voters, the plan would replace a failed $3.8-billion development proposal for county-owned land around the Nassau Coliseum. That proposal, the Lighthouse Project, was to be funded by Islanders owner Charles Wang. The new plan also would shift a proposed Shinnecock Indian Nation casino from the Coliseum site to Belmont Park.
For both Wang and Mangano, the change means compromising on grand plans each previously had for the site. Wang's project died last year, when the Town of Hempstead created a zone that wouldn't allow for his proposed density. Mangano's blueprint to bring a casino to the Uniondale area was criticized by nearby Hofstra University and neighborhood groups. These critics cited traffic and gambling close to the school as reasons to oppose the casino.
"I deal with reality," Mangano said. "Basically we looked at what are the realistic alternatives to construct an arena in the time frame that is left before us . . . I am very interested in not having a darkened, vacant 77-acre site in the heart of Nassau County known as the Hub."
Construction on the new arena, to be built next to the existing Coliseum, would begin next spring. Once completed, Mangano said, the old facility would be demolished. He said he is forming a redevelopment advisory committee headed by former Nasdaq chairman Frank Zarb.
The Nassau Interim Finance Authority, which took control of the county's finances in January, would have to approve any bonding agreement to fund the construction. NIFA officials Tuesday would not comment. NIFA also would have to approve contracts of more than $50,000 related to the construction. The plan comes as state and local budgets are being cut and many taxpayers are showing an aversion to raising debt.
Mangano: Deadline nears
Mangano said the clock was ticking on the Coliseum, as the Islanders' lease with the county expires in 2015. Fan attendance has been among the lowest in the league, and Wang has said his franchise loses millions each year.
Wang said the plan allows him to do what he hoped: Keep the Islanders on Long Island.
"I guess the most important thing is we haven't given up," Wang said. "We give it our all to try to get it done. We can't say we've succeeded yet, but we hope this one will work."
Asked about the Islanders' future if the referendum doesn't pass, Wang said, "I don't want to contemplate that right now."
The proposal would earmark $350 million for a new arena and $50 million for a minor-league ballpark at Mitchel Field, Mangano said. It would create 3,300 construction jobs.
"I'm absolutely all in," said John Durso, president of the Long Island Federation of Labor. "We don't want to lose the Islanders and we have to get this thing kick-started. We're talking about union jobs and it's great for the economy."
Mangano said the referendum is scheduled for August to separate it from election-season politics. But skeptics said the vote's timing is misguided.
"A referendum . . . should be decided on Election Day, not one random summer night," said Legis. David Denenberg (D-Merrick). "It's disappointing that Nassau residents must consider footing the bill when 100 percent private financing was available a little more than a year ago."
Some hurdles to new arena
A simple majority of the 19-member county legislature would first vote to decide whether to put the referendum on the ballot. If the plan is approved by voters in August, the legislature would vote again, requiring 13 votes to approve the bonding.
If the referendum passes, the county would begin a request for proposals process to bid out the construction of a new Coliseum, a project that could begin next spring and finish before the 2015-16 hockey season, Wang and Mangano said.
The $400-million debt service would be spread out over 30 years -- the same length as a new lease between the county and the Islanders, which would be crafted after the referendum passes. The debt would be paid through revenue sharing between Wang and the county.
Mangano and Wang would not specify the amount of revenue the county would receive. Mangano said more details would come before the Aug. 1 vote.
Wang said the new arena would have 17,500 seats for hockey games and 20,000 for concerts, but did not specify further details of what the new facility would look like. The current arena has 16,250 seats. Wang said he'd work with county and town officials on development plans.
Town of Hempstead Supervisor Kate Murray had put out her own zoning plan for the site. Spokesman Mike Deery said Tuesday Murray "thinks it's a positive step that the county executive is putting forth an agenda that gives Nassau residents a voice in the future of the Nassau Coliseum and surrounding property."
With Jim Baumbach