The impending departure of the New York Islanders for their new home in Brooklyn has left the fate of the Nassau Coliseum in doubt, and sports economists, local developers and lawmakers are divided on whether the 40-year-old arena can stay open past 2015.
The team's departure will leave Nassau County with a critical decision: maintain, refurbish or replace the existing Coliseum and hope to pack it with concerts, family events or conventions or demolish the arena and start from scratch, experts said.
"I can't see any positive scenario where it would survive without a professional sports team," said developer Scott Rechler, Wang's partner in the failed $3.8 billion Lighthouse Project for the 77-acre Hub property. Wang and Rechler abandoned the project in 2009 after the Town of Hempstead said it was too dense.
The track record of arenas remaining viable after losing a pro team is poor, with many shutting their doors after years of making little profit, said Andrew Zimbalist, a sports economist at Smith College in Northampton, Mass.
Without public transportation or a major metropolitan center, Zimbalist said investing in the Coliseum is not worth the risk. "Preserving or building a new arena does not make sense," he said.
County Comptroller George Maragos said the Coliseum needs no sports franchise to thrive. He said the Coliseum was able to fill seats with concerts and other events throughout the 2004-05 hockey lockout. "We can upgrade the existing facility to make it more enticing to attract premier concerts and events," Maragos said.
Legis. David Denenberg (D-Merrick) said a new or rehabilitated arena could supplement other new development at the Hub, such as sports medicine or alternative energy firms.
With or without the Islanders, the challenge of developing the Hub area has not changed.
Building the rest of the property, while keeping the arena, would require an above-ground parking structure, an expensive project. Demolishing the Coliseum would cost roughly $20 million, according to private engineers who analyzed the cost as part of the defeated 2011 Coliseum referendum.
Nassau County Executive Edward Mangano is preparing to select a master developer next week for the Hub property, considered among the most valuable plots of land in the county.
The candidates are Plainview developer Donald Monti, Garden City developer Edward Blumenfeld and Patchogue-based Baldassano Architecture. Blumenfeld is promoting a sports and entertainment venue that would not include a stand-alone arena. Walter Paulik, a consultant for Baldassano, said their plans call for development in the area surrounding the Coliseum but he would not say if that included an arena. Monti was unavailable for comment.
In a report prepared for the defeated 2011 referendum on borrowing up to $400 million to build a new arena, county consultant Camoin Associates wrote that without the Islanders, the arena would not be "economically viable. The county has said that it would be forced to close down the Coliseum if the Islanders were to leave."
Mangano's office declined to comment Thursday.
Lee Igel, a professor of sports management at the NYU Tisch Center for Hospitality, Tourism, and Sports Management, said the Islanders' departure "will force officials to drop their old assumptions and consider what it is that they want for this community."
Eric Alexander, who heads Vision Long Island, a smart growth group, said if the Coliseum is to survive, Nassau must be creative, and possibly retrofit the arena as a convention center or a venue for mixed martial arts. "How many Elmo and friends [shows] can you really do?" he said.
With Randi F. Marshall
and James T. Madore