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Can Nassau Coliseum and Islanders' Belmont arena coexist?

A rendering of the Islanders' Belmont arena.

A rendering of the Islanders' Belmont arena. Credit: New York Arena Partners LLC

The $1.3 billion arena and entertainment complex rising on state land at Belmont Park could threaten NYCB Live's Nassau Coliseum, testing whether Nassau's economy can support two large-scale venues eight miles from each other, arena experts and some officials say.

The 19,000-seat Belmont arena, scheduled to open in 2021, will be the new permanent home to the NHL's Islanders and host about 200 games, concerts and other events each year, according to the developers.

With luxury seating and high-end retail, backers are marketing the venue as an international destination that will draw crowds from New York City and Long Island.

The 15,000-seat Nassau Coliseum in Uniondale, built in 1972 and renovated at a cost of $180 million in 2017, was the Islanders' full-time home until 2015.

The Coliseum sits on the last significant tract of developable county property and provides a minimum of $4 million in revenue each year to Nassau County. The arena will face new competition from Belmont in addition to New York City arenas Barclays Center and Madison Square Garden at a time when developers are seeking to build a $1.5 billion mixed-use complex around it.

Some sports marketing experts and Nassau County officials question how the Belmont arena and the Coliseum will coexist — or if they even can.

"It's tough to see how Nassau Coliseum survives in its current form given the number of seats there are and the number of venues in the area, with MSG, Barclays and what will become the Belmont arena," said Lee Igel, a New York University sports business professor.

"It will be easy for the Coliseum in its current form to get crowded out of that equation,” Igel said.

Others say there is more than enough business in a big market such as New York to support both arenas, and point to development plans at the Nassau Hub as a critical economic igniter for the future of the Coliseum site.

Scott Rechler’s RXR Realty and development partner Onexim Sports and Entertainment, which operates the county-owned Coliseum, plan to build a mix of biotech research facilities and housing on the 72 acres surrounding the arena. Officials are pushing for a fast timeline for the development to compete with the Belmont construction.

Onexim president Maureen Hanlon said the plan for development of the  Hub area around the Coliseum was a major factor in the company's decision to bid on the Coliseum renovation when the county issued a request for proposals in 2013.

The Islanders' Belmont arena project doesn't change its outlook, Hanlon said. She noted, for instance, that the Coliseum's smaller size will be attractive to entertainment acts that may not be able to sell out the Belmont arena's 19,000 seats. 

"We feel Long Island has been an underserved community when it comes to live entertainment," Hanlon said. "And there’s an opportunity for both to survive. The venues will be different. The size is different."

Discussion about the relationship between the Coliseum and the Belmont Park project — and the importance of the surrounding development to each arena — comes after the decadeslong battle that preceded the Coliseum's renovation and reopening in 2017.

Efforts to redevelop the Coliseum property long were hamstrung by political infighting, costly project delays and protracted litigation. 

In 2004, the late Charles Wang proposed the $3.8 billion Lighthouse Project, which included a renovated arena, 2,300 housing units, 1 million square feet of office space, 500,000 square feet of retail and a luxury hotel. Wang partnered with Rechler on the proposal. The Town of Hempstead expressed concerns over the scope of the project, and Wang abandoned plans in 2010.

In 2011, then Nassau County Executive Edward Mangano, a Republican, asked voters to approve spending up to $400 million to rebuild the Coliseum and construct an adjacent minor league baseball stadium. Voters rejected the referendum proposal; a year later the Islanders announced plans to move to Brooklyn when their Coliseum lease expired.

By 2013, four developers were vying to build on the site. The county chose Barclays Center developer Bruce Ratner's $229 million plan, which originally also called for a 2,000-seat theater, a 2,500-seat outdoor amphitheater, an ice-skating rink, restaurants and 50,000 square feet of retail. Ratner completed a $180 million renovation of the Coliseum in April 2017 and plans for the surrounding development were stalled in a prolonged court battle with another developer. 

At Belmont, a groundbreaking ceremony was held last month as developer New York Arena Partners touted what they said would be a premier sports and concert venue along with "futuristic" retail options on the 43-acre site. The development group is a partnership between the owners of the Islanders, the New York Mets and the arena management company Oak View Group.

The new Belmont arena will have 18,853 seats for concerts, and 17,113 seats for hockey. There will be premium seating along with public bars with a view of the ice and “innovative food and drink services,” according to the Islanders' website.

Developers promise the new Belmont arena will include the newest technology, including the option of facial recognition to allow ticket holders to order the same food and drinks they did during their previous trip to the arena.

At the Coliseum site, Rechler's plans are focused on development of facilities for biotech and life sciences research. He also envisions 500 units of housing aimed at millennials, new retail and restaurants and public spaces connected to surrounding communities through new modes of transportation.

As Rechler and his team envision it, programming at the Coliseum and throughout the  Hub area will complement each other and sit at the nexus of a vibrant, 24/7 suburban community.

RXR is finalizing its revised conceptual master plan to file with the Town of Hempstead in mid-November. The town already has completed the state environmental approval process for the site’s zoning. So it's possible to have shovels in the ground and a building schedule that could rival that of the Belmont arena by the end of 2020, Rechler said. 

Rechler called the competition from Belmont, “all the more reason to fast-track the transformation of the Coliseum site into an innovative work, live, play space. There’s room in the market for both venues and they will complement each other as we reinvent the suburbs.”

Igel, a sports business professor at NYU's Tisch Institute for Global Sport, said the mixed-use development around the Coliseum will help in the competition with Belmont. Patrons will need new reasons to want to come to the Coliseum site, Igel said.

The Coliseum needs to aggressively pursue emerging programming such as esports — where people watch top sports video gamers go head-to-head — in order to remain relevant to ticket buyers, Igel said.

"The Coliseum's challenge is along the lines of, what can you do differently with what you've got," Igel said. "The question for the Coliseum now becomes: knowing what you know about Belmont, what can you do that is new and different?"

Robert Trumpbour, a communications professor at Penn State Altoona  and the author of "The New Cathedrals: Politics and Media in the History of Stadium Construction," said the Belmont arena will mean more competition in a market already crowded with arenas in order to land "top tier acts."

"Putting another arena in any major metropolitan area will almost certainly create a more competitive environment," Trumpbour said. "New York City is a huge metro area, but another arena would stiffen the competition to attract top-tier acts among all of the venues."

The Islanders' Belmont arena will be operated by Oak View Group, a Los Angeles-based arena development company. Oak View says its "alliance" with more than two dozen arenas nationwide makes it more attractive for performers seeking to book across its multiple venues.

At the same time, Coliseum management no longer is booking acts in conjunction with Barclays Center. Onexim owner Mikhail Prokhorov, a Russian billionaire, sold Barclays and the Brooklyn Nets last month to e-commerce billionaire Joseph Tsai, but held on to the Coliseum lease. That means Onexim now owns no other sports arena. The company also has a 50% stake in Webster Hall, a Manhattan concert venue.

"I think the Belmont arena, with their ownership group, has the inside track on booking the bigger name acts," said Andrew Forman, a Hofstra University marketing professor. "I think that's going to impact the Coliseum more than the size difference or the Coliseum being older."

Forman also said the Coliseum will face "somewhat of an image problem" in its marketing efforts because "it wasn't suitable for the Islanders." Now the team is opening a larger, more modern arena only a few miles away, "and everything that is new and shiny is something that is appealing," Forman said.

The Coliseum's fate also could have an impact on Nassau County's finances, which have been plagued by budget deficits and the need to borrow hundreds of millions of dollars to pay property tax settlements.

Onexim guarantees Nassau a minimum of $4 million in annual rent or the sum of 8% of all annual revenue including tickets and concessions and 12.7% of parking receipts, whichever is higher.

“A thriving Coliseum is vital to moving Nassau forward," Nassau County Comptroller Jack Schnirman said. "The current lease formula ties County revenue to the success of the Coliseum."

Nassau County Legis. Vincent Muscarella (R-West Hempstead), who had questioned the Belmont development, said he and majority Republicans in the legislature trust that Rechler and the administration of County Executive Laura Curran, a Democrat, will take into account the offerings at Belmont and make sure the Coliseum stays competitive.

“I think that the immediate budget of the county and the long term outlook of Nassau County’s economy depends in part on the development of the Hub,” Muscarella said.

Asked whether the state project at Belmont would hurt the HUB project, Muscarella said, “unfortunately the Belmont development, proposed by the governor, doesn’t seem to take into effect the Hub development.”

At Belmont's September groundbreaking, Curran told Newsday she saw no negative impact or financial risk to the Coliseum.

"I see these two projects as quite complementary," said Curran, a supporter of the Belmont project. "The fact that we have two very large projects happening right in our county shows — proves — that we are not 'the land of no' but that we are 'the land of yes, yes, yes' and good things can happen in Nassau and we can move forward." 

That's why development of the surrounding Nassau Hub is key, officials said.

Hanlon, the president, envisions a scenario in which Coliseum visitors "see the vision of it before there’s a sense of, 'Oh, well everyone’s just going to go to Belmont.' I think it’s going to be a thriving community in the short period."

Kevin Law, president and CEO of the Long Island Association, and co-chairman of the Hub advisory committee, which aims to engage local community groups, said Long Islanders have enough disposable income to support Belmont and the Coliseum.

Also, this time the county, the town and all stakeholders are in agreement, Law said, so that the approval process for the Hub project will be quicker and smoother than for many smaller development projects elsewhere on Long Island.

With “these projects as a whole, we are talking about billions of dollars of investments in our region," Law said of the Belmont project and the Hub redevelopment. "That should be encouraged and welcomed.”

Law said RXR is expected to get the approval for $85 million in state money for two parking garages on the Coliseum site before the end of 2019. The state money is essential to the start of construction, county officials have said.

“Given the Amazon debacle — where we scared away a multibillion dollar multinational company that was bringing thousands of jobs — we should be welcoming this kind of economic growth,” Law said.

State officials believe there's room for both arena developments to succeed. 

Jason Conwall, a spokesman for Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo, said in a statement: “Thanks to smart state investments, Long Island’s tourism sector is booming — generating $6.1 billion in spending last year and supporting over 81,000 jobs. Our support for projects like the Nassau Coliseum and Belmont Arena, which can successfully coexist, are investments in the regional economy that will help to ensure this trend continues.” ‎

Jack Sterne, a spokesman for Empire State Development, the state's business aid agency, said, "ESD conducted a thorough analysis to see how the new Belmont arena would fit into the region’s live event landscape. These two venues will not just coexist, but will complement each other."

Curran said the Hub redevelopment doesn't face the same political challenges as in the past. Asked whether there was a need to build the Hub in tandem with Belmont she said: "If Rechler can do it, I'm all for it." 

But Forman, the Hofstra professor, said Long Islanders have been trained not to expect any Nassau Hub plans to come to fruition, given the number of false starts over the years.

"I've been at Hofstra nearly 35 years and they've always been talking about the HUB," he said. "Every few years it's a new plan, and it never happens."

BELMONT PARK

Location: Elmont

Arena seats: 19,000

Opens: 2021 (expected)

Cost: $1.3 billion

Surrounding development: 350,000 square feet of retail space; 250-room hotel; new Long Island Rail Road "Elmont station"

NYCB LIVE'S NASSAU COLISEUM

Location: Uniondale

Arena seats: 15,000

Opened: 1972

Cost: $32 million, with $180 million renovation in 2017

Surrounding development: $1.5 billion plan to build a mix of biotech research facilities and housing on the 72 acres around the arena

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