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Nassau's economic challenges: Mangano, Suozzi must deal with Coliseum, jobs and transit projects

Left, former Nassau County Executive Tom Suozzi speaks

Left, former Nassau County Executive Tom Suozzi speaks about the county's assessment system in Mineola. Right, Nassau County Executive Edward Mangano participates in a debate hosted by the New York League of Conservation Voters to talk about environmental and development issues, at Hofstra University in Hempstead. (Oct. 1, 2013, Oct. 2, 2013) Credit: James Carbone, Heather Walsh

Nassau County Executive Edward Mangano and challenger Thomas Suozzi, who held the county's corner office before Mangano, are each familiar with the struggles of economic development in Nassau.

Both have stories of success -- and failure. Both know the complicated web of dealing with legislative approval, municipal zoning and tax breaks. And both faced years of unsuccessful attempts to put a shovel in the ground on the 77 acres surrounding Nassau Coliseum -- the largest remaining parcel of open land in the county.

Suozzi took a nuanced, big-picture and planning-focused approach to economic development, while Mangano employed a practical strategy focused on keeping businesses in Nassau, attracting new ones and creating campaigns to support downtowns, experts said.

Suozzi's eight years as county executive featured broad ideas, including the Lighthouse Project, a large-scale, $3.8 billion development plan at the 77-acre Hub site in Uniondale, and he pushed for them without reducing size or scope. But he didn't always succeed, in part, he said, because of politics.

Mangano, meanwhile, found smaller efforts to focus on, such as creating film studio space in Bethpage, or doing a far simpler renovation at the Hub. While he made progress in those areas, some political observers said he didn't do enough.

Even as they try to differentiate themselves in this election campaign, Republican Mangano and Democrat Suozzi appear to have similar goals for economic development in the next four years. They'll likely focus, experts said, on the revamped Nassau Coliseum, infrastructure improvements, transit-oriented development, and business retention and creation.

But they'll also face political, financial and other challenges, observers said.

Kevin Law, president of the Long Island Association, the region's largest business group, pointed to community concerns that can derail building projects.

"Voters need to understand that growth and supporting projects, that may be not traditional projects in the way Nassau and Suffolk was developed, are critical to the future of our economy," Law said. "Without these projects, our economy will not be able to sustain what we are accustomed to in terms of [government] services such as police and schools. . . . We run the risk of ruining our economy."

Several significant issues that Suozzi and Mangano faced as county executive remain challenges for the next four years, experts said. They include:





Nine years ago, then-County Executive Suozzi touted a deal to transform the 77 acres surrounding Nassau Coliseum in an effort to keep the Islanders hockey team. It would have included a full-scale arena renovation, a 60-story hotel and condominium tower, a conference center and more.

It became the $3.8 billion Lighthouse Project, created by Islanders owner Charles Wang. Originally, construction was to start in 2006 and finish by 2009.

That plan and others like it came under fire. The rest of Suozzi's tenure was spent unsuccessfully trying to get construction started.

"The Lighthouse Project did not move forward because the Town of Hempstead would not give the zoning," Suozzi said. "We had negotiated the best sports deal in America. . . . It was purely political that this was blocked by the Republicans."

Enter Edward Mangano. The current county executive tried to push Lighthouse in early 2010 and later unsuccessfully attempted a deal with the Shinnecock Indians for a casino on the site. He then tried, again unsuccessfully, to get voters to approve a 2011 referendum to borrow $400 million of public funds to pay for a new Coliseum.

Last year, the Islanders announced plans to move to the Barclays Center in Brooklyn.

This summer, Mangano struck a deal with Barclays developer Bruce Ratner to build a $229 million, smaller-scale Coliseum renovation and entertainment complex.

The Hub, Mangano said, "has been the victim of the Long Island no." He added, "Our administration has been able to attain a resounding Long Island yes."

Once again, the project awaits Hempstead's approval, though it now conforms with the town's new zoning. Most observers predict the arena renovation, at least, is more likely to become a reality than any plan that preceded it.

The question, said Hofstra University president Stuart Rabinowitz, is whether there will be more. "It still leaves 60 acres or so in theory of prime-area development," he said. Leaving that land for surface parking would be "an enormous waste of space," he added.

Mangano said he wants more development at the site, which depends on the construction of parking garages.

Suozzi said he would honor Ratner's agreement with Nassau, though "it's not nearly ambitious enough."

The candidate also wants to convert some of the remaining acres into incubators for high-technology businesses as proposed by Renaissance Downtowns chief executive Donald Monti, the site's master developer.

Suozzi also would link the Hub to nearby attractions such as Hofstra, Eisenhower Park and Museum Row. "We have to create a place, an environment that attracts young people," he said.





Small-business owners pointed to Mangano's creation of the Local Economic Assistance and Development Services program, or LEADS, which gives them tax breaks from the county's Industrial Development Agency previously available only to large companies.

Julie Marchesella, president of the Nassau Council of Chambers of Commerce, said the program made a difference for local businesses after superstorm Sandy. "Not FEMA, not the Small Business Administration, not New York State has extended one dollar as an olive branch to Main Street businesses," said Marchesella, who owns Queen of Hearts, Inc., a Merrick store selling formalwear for plus-size women. "The only elected official that came out to support small business was Ed Mangano."

Mangano pointed to his success in luring the headquarters of The Hain Celestial Group, a $2 billion natural foods company, from Suffolk County to Lake Success, even as it was courted by New Jersey. "That was a major crowning achievement," he said.

But Suozzi criticized the $10 million deal, saying it moved only the company headquarters from Suffolk to Nassau, didn't create enough jobs and wasn't part of a larger, focused plan to boost the economy.

As county executive, Suozzi, too, tried to retain and add businesses and local developers through tax breaks, loans and other assistance. He also worked to create employment programs, particularly for veterans, experts said.

Now, Suozzi said he hopes to re-examine regulations to make it easier to start and run a small business. He said he has a new appreciation for the difficulties that small businesses face since his wife, Helene, now co-owns a Glen Cove restaurant. "It's really very overwhelming," the candidate said.





Both Mangano and Suozzi have lauded transit-oriented development -- the creation of mixed-use projects near Long Island Rail Road stations with retail shops at street level and apartments above them. The lack of such projects, experts said, contributes to the flight of young workers.

Monti, whose focus has been on redeveloping Hempstead Village and other downtowns, said such efforts are key. "We really have to figure out a way to stop the exodus of our young people," he said. "We cannot grow when our most important resource is also our biggest export."

Mangano touted his efforts to convert vacant office buildings into apartments.

Suozzi said these projects arose out of his "cool downtowns" initiative from several years ago, which called for a small percentage of land to become more dense, while most parcels stayed the same.

Now, Suozzi is proposing a "new suburbia trailblazer" competition, where communities vie for $10 million in grants over four years to support downtown revitalization. "We have to recycle and reuse these properties in a way that will expand the tax base, bring in more sales-tax revenue and create environments that young people want to be in," he said.





Observers said the next county executive has to focus on the areas of economic development where he can have the most impact, while also maintaining broader ideas and goals.

"If you have the vision, you can keep going back and working on it," said John Durso, president of the Long Island Federation of Labor, which has endorsed Suozzi. "If you don't invest in your community, it's only going to go downhill."

Mangano or Suozzi also will have to look to other levels of government for additional funding, while using the county's own resources, including the IDA, to encourage new construction and business investment, said Eric Alexander, the executive director of Vision Long Island, a smart-growth group in Northport.

"The job of the county . . . is to secure infrastructure dollars and work with local folks who have their own plans, as opposed to the county playing a regional planning role," he said.

Mangano said he is prioritizing development at the Coliseum and at state-owned Belmont Park, along with more transit-oriented projects and infrastructure improvements.

He said he wants to expand efforts in his hometown of Bethpage to build a film and television industry there. The former Grumman complex now has a dozen soundstages and a backlot. Mangano said he hopes to add digital postproduction.

"We have brought that industry from nothing to very significant," he said.

Suozzi said he opened the first movie studio in Bethpage and would like to see more technology businesses locate there. He said his focus remains on developing downtowns and keeping young people in the area.

Both candidates said the differences between them are clear.

"It's great to have a nice dream, but you can't be judged on your dream, you have to be judged on your accomplishments," Mangano said. "I'm creating jobs, he's creating rose-colored glasses."

Said Suozzi: "You have to reach for the stars, and even if you don't make it, you'll make it to the moon. Right now, Mangano is playing small ball with small ideas that are not accomplishing anything."

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