A new community group with $650,000 in funding is mounting strong opposition to the $1.2 billion plan to build an arena for the New York Islanders, along with a retail and entertainment complex on state land at Belmont Park.
Elmont Against the Megamall, which wants to kill the development, is operated by a West Hollywood, California-based marketing firm, New York State records show. The group, which is registered as a "domestic nonprofit" in California, also is working with lobbyist Michael McKeon, who was a staff member for former New York Gov. George Pataki.
According to filings with the state Joint Commission on Public Ethics, the Elmont group gets its funding from Citizens for Responsible Community based in Warrenton, Virginia. The civic group received $400,000 in September 2018 and $250,000 in December 2018, according to disclosure statements.
In September 2018, Elmont Against the Megamall paid $346,000 to The Crux Group, the West Hollywood company. In October 2018, the community group paid another $34,000 to Crux, and in December 2018 it paid the firm an additional $102,000, state filings show.
"We believe this project is too big for the community, period. It will overrun the community with traffic from outside Elmont, turning a bad traffic situation into a living nightmare," said Howard Kushlan, co-founder and CEO of The Crux Group.
Kushlan would say only that he expresses the views of members of Elmont Against the Megamall.
The Belmont project is undergoing a lengthy environmental review process scheduled to be completed in June. Developers want to build a 19,000-seat arena, a 250-room hotel and 435,000 square feet of retail.
Jack Sterne, spokesman for Empire State Development, the state agency overseeing the Belmont project, questioned the legitimacy of Elmont Against the Megamall.
"It's clear that this faceless 'opposition group' isn’t listening to the community, and exists solely to promote its own interests and peddle propaganda," Sterne said. "Fortunately, the Elmont community is far too smart and engaged to be tricked by anonymous big-money interests,"
Local residents and some state lawmakers questioned how the group, which describes itself as a grassroots community organization, was able to raise so much money.
“Whoever is behind this is hiding behind the group name, and there’s nobody I can speak to about what their beliefs are,” said Jon Johnson, who sits on the 15-person Community Advisory Committee formed by ESD. The panel meets regularly to discuss issues related to the Belmont development.
“They want people to think this is what Elmont residents think, and that’s just not true," said Johnson, a longtime Elmont resident. "It’s very very bothersome.”
Elmont Against the Megamall, formed in August 2018, is active on Facebook and Twitter and has posted images of its preference for Belmont — ballfields — on a website called Medium.
The group also has begun circulating a petition calling for a full-time Long Island Rail Road station at Belmont. Representatives have visited the parking lots during events at NYCB Live’s Nassau Coliseum, asking Islanders fans to sign. The group then posts photos of the fans signing the petition on Twitter.
Elmont Against the Megamall says in news releases it has four local residents as board members: Kevin Barnes, Tony Bhatti, Will Cook and Grisselle Gonzalez.
Bhatti said he doesn’t know who is funding the group, but said the money gives them a larger platform to get their anti-development message out.
“We are against this project and so are they, and that’s why we are together,” Bhatti said of Crux and McKeon. “It will just make our voice be heard much faster and much louder because their agenda is the same as ours.”
Barnes said, “We don’t need another mall. We have another mall another mile and a half from us,” referring to Green Acres Mall in Valley Stream.
Gonzalez did not respond to messages seeking comment. Cook declined to comment, saying he wasn’t that involved and wanted to get permission from “the people running it.”
Bhatti said Elmont Against the Megamall has engaged McKeon, a partner at Mercury Public Affairs, a political consulting firm with offices in 20 cities including New York and Albany.
McKeon served as communications director for Pataki, a Republican. McKeon also worked on Pataki's successful re-election campaigns in 1998 and 2002.
McKeon declined to comment, referring inquiries to Kushlan. Kushlan declined to say where Citizens for Responsible Community gets its money.
"I refer you to the group to answer that question," Kushlan said. "I don’t speak for them."
A phone number for Citizens for Responsible Community listed on state disclosure forms is that of a company called Election CFO, with the motto: "We do compliance so you can do politics." Messages left there were not returned.
The address for the Citizens for Responsible Community matches that of a Virginia law firm that has represented the National Republican Congressional Committee and fundraising organizations tied to GOP strategist Karl Rove and billionaires Charles and David Koch, according to news stories by The Associated Press and The Washington Post.
Elmont Against the Megamall also has been represented by Valley Stream-based attorney Albert D’Agostino and Ronkonkoma-based traffic engineer Steven Schneider, both of whom spoke out in opposition to the project during public hearings in January.
D'Agostino on Tuesday said the community group is not paying him but declined to comment further. Kushlan said D'Agostino is doing pro bono work for the group. Schneider has not responded to requests for comment.
State Sen. Todd Kaminsky (D-Long Beach), the target of a YouTube ad by Elmont Against the Megamall last fall, said he speaks "with Elmont residents constantly about the Belmont project and how to ensure it benefits their community to the greatest extent possible. No outside group will change that approach.”
Sen. Anna Kaplan (D-Great Neck) said she has tried to meet with as many constituents and groups from the community as possible, and met with a representative from Elmont Against the Megamall.
“I heard his concerns, which were divergent from most of the Elmont residents I have met with," Kaplan said. "If there are more members of the group who would like to share their concerns with me, I am open to hearing from them, but so far only one resident has come forward and identified themselves to me as representing this group.”
Mimi Pierre-Johnson, a community activist in Elmont who opposes the Belmont project, complained about a glossy postcard she received in the mail asking her to join Elmont Against the Megamall without offering much information.
“Who are you and why am I joining you? Or do you just need names so you can say, ‘Look, we have 10,000 people that do not want this,’” Pierre-Johnson said. “To me this was a very sneaky way of doing things so that you can build your database and the community is still in the dark about who you are.”
Pierre-Johnson belongs to the Belmont Park Community Coalition, which opposes the Belmont project and is run by community organizer Tammie Williams.
Williams questioned the transparency of Elmont Against the Megamall, but said she doesn't mind working with them because they have “a shared interest.”
Williams’ group has been fundraising for more than two years. She declined to disclose how much they’ve raised, but said it’s “pennies compared to $650,000. We’re a grassroots group, going door to door, asking taxpayers to dig into their pockets for $5. Believe me, it’s nowhere near that much.”