A new chapter in Nassau County’s decadelong struggle to overhaul the Nassau Coliseum — a saga riddled with missteps, taxpayer rejections and the loss of Long Island’s only major league sports team — starts Wednesday as the arena reopens after an 18-month, $165 million makeover.
Bruce Ratner, the project’s lead developer, says the renovated Coliseum will serve as the region’s central entertainment location and as a destination for Long Islanders.
“This arena will have a major effect on Nassau County going forward,” Ratner said in an interview. “It’s going to change Nassau from being a New York City suburb to its own real place. This will change the impression Nassau County makes on the rest of the world.”
However, Ratner’s plan to redevelop the 77-acre Hub property faces hurdles.
Nassau Events Center, the company that remodeled the Coliseum, has yet to break ground on an 11-acre retail plaza next to the arena. Nassau County Executive Edward Mangano has put the project on hold to consider alternative plans.
And the National Hockey League has yet to approve Ratner’s plan for the Islanders to play four regular season and two preseason games at the renovated arena. The lease guarantees Nassau $1 million annually if the games don’t materialize.
Moreover, unlike many arenas around the country, the Coliseum will have no major league sports team, due to the departure of the Islanders to the Barclays Center in 2015.
Sports industry experts say that even without a retail plaza and professional sports, the Coliseum can succeed if it attracts enough musical headliners and family-friendly shows.
“If everything breaks correctly, it can be done,” said Andrew Zimbalist, a sports economist and professor at Smith College in Massachusetts. “But the stars need to align to make it work.”
Victor Matheson, a sports economist with the College of the Holy Cross in Worcester, Massachusetts, also cautioned that the arena’s effect on the local economy will be limited.
Long Islanders should treat the arena as an “amenity” and not “as an economic game changer,” Matheson said. “It’s a nice thing to have in your neighborhood, but it’s not going to drive the local economy.”
Efforts to renovate the Uniondale arena — now called NYCB Live’s Nassau Veterans Memorial Coliseum — involved multiple private developers and the terms of two Nassau County executives: Thomas Suozzi, a Democrat who served from 2002-2009, and Mangano, a Republican who took office in 2010.
In 2004, Islanders then-majority owner Charles Wang proposed a privately funded, $3.7 billion development called the Lighthouse Project that included a renovated arena, 2,300 units of housing, 1 billion square feet of office space, 500,000 square feet of retail and a luxury hotel.
The project had Suozzi’s support, but in 2010 the GOP-led Hempstead Town Board killed the project, arguing it was too dense for the community.
In 2011, Mangano proposed an Aug. 1 referendum to borrow up to $400 million in taxpayer money to renovate the arena. But Nassau Democrats oppsed the project, saying it would increase property taxes and debt service costs. Voters eventually rejected the proposal, 57 percent to 43 percent.
Wang, who declined to comment for this story, said Nassau politicians were to blame for the setbacks. “If the Democrats like it, then the Republicans have to not like it; if the Republicans like it, the Democrats can’t like it,” Wang said in a 2011 interview.
In 2012, Wang announced that the Islanders would relocate to the Barclays Center in Brooklyn — another Ratner property — when their lease at the Coliseum expired in 2015. Wang sold a majority interest in the team in 2014 to investor Jonathan Ledecky and Scott Malkin, who owns shopping centers across Europe.
In 2013, Mangano issued a request for proposals for private firms to develop the Hub site, located in central Nassau near two colleges, museums, Roosevelt Field mall and Eisenhower Park. Four developers, including Forest City Ratner and the Madison Square Garden Co., submitted bids. Mangano selected Ratner’s bid, saying it would “attract people from beyond our borders” and generate constant revenue to the county.
The lease calls for Nassau Events Center to pay Nassau 8 percent of all annual revenue generated by the Coliseum, including tickets and concessions, and 12.75 percent of parking. The deal guarantees Nassau a minimum of $4.4 million in the first year and $334 million over the next 49 years.
Scott Rechler, chief executive of RXR Realty, who partnered with Wang on the Lighthouse Project, said that in hindsight that development may have been too ambitious for its time.
Rechler says he supports an incremental approach, in which redevelopment, including the retail plaza and new biotech park, proceeds in stages.
“The lesson is that you can’t force something on the public and just say ‘take it,’” said Rechler, who is in discussions with Nassau Events Center to partner on retail, housing and office space development at the Hub. “It can’t be a top-down approach.”
Suozzi, now a congressman in the 3rd District, said he’s pleased the arena was renovated but “disappointed” the project was not more ambitious. “I can’t help but feel like it was a missed opportunity,” Suozzi said.
Mangano, who keeps a clock on his desk counting down the minutes until the Coliseum reopens, said he has “no regrets. I really don’t know what else we could have done differently.”
The arena, which will have 14,500 seats for sports and up to 16,000 for concerts, has undergone a top-to-bottom face-lift. It has a sculpted aluminum exterior and new seating, bathrooms, lighting and flooring.
But for the first time since the arena opened in 1972, with the Islanders and the New York Nets basketball team as tenants, the building has no professional sports team as an anchor tenant.
To keep the arena filled, Nassau Events plans to attract headline musical acts such as Barbra Streisand and Billy Joel, family events such as a World Wrestling Entertainment show and minor league and collegiate sports. Industry experts said the Coliseum needs about 200 such events per year to break even.
The Long Island Nets, the Brooklyn Nets’ Development League team, will play at the arena beginning this fall. Brett Yormark, chief executive of Brooklyn Sports & Entertainment, the parent company of NEC, said he is negotiating with a second minor league team he declined to identify.
The arena also will also host NCAA college basketball — operators are bidding for the NCAA men’s basketball tournament beginning in 2019 — along with boxing, college hockey and mixed martial arts.
Joel Maxcy, vice president of the International Association of Sports Economists, which analyzes sports financing, said the combination of acts and sporting events booked so far could make the Coliseum a success. “It’s early but it doesn’t look like this is going to be a failure,” Maxcy said.
Yormark predicted the Coliseum will prosper even without an anchor tenant. He said that without a professional sports team occupying 40-plus dates per year, there is more “flexibility” to attract an artist-in-residence who would play on a regular basis or to host multiday events.
He pointed to the Sprint Center in Kansas City and The Forum in Los Angeles as examples of multipurpose arenas that are profitable without a professional sports team. But those arenas have more seats than the Coliseum and are in busy areas with restaurants, bars and entertainment.
Ratner’s lease with Nassau County called for construction of a 188,000-square-foot plaza with restaurants, a movie theater, indoor theater, a skating rink and retail space.
Mangano put the plaza on hold to provide the county and Nassau Events Center with time to examine alternative development at the site, including housing. The move came after the state last year approved an $85 million grant for construction of two parking garages near the arena. The structures will have 3,400 spots and free up 19 acres of blacktop for development.
Complicating efforts to build the retail complex is Ratner’s lawsuit with Syosset-based Blumenfeld Development Group. The firms worked together to plan the commercial development for 18 months but had a falling out over the direction and control of the project.
Blumenfeld attorney Ronald Rosenberg has called the idea of putting housing at the Hub a “sham” because residential development was not part of the county’s original request for proposals to redevelop the site. Blumenfeld would consider a new lawsuit if Mangano permits Ratner to build homes at the Hub without putting the new housing work out to bid, Rosenberg said.
Ratner concedes the planned retail plaza “has not happened as rapidly as we hoped,” but said he still anticipates building the complex. He noted that construction had begun on a privately funded Memorial Sloan Kettering Cancer Center on the southwest portion of the Hub property.
“It’s about doing something that’s meaningful,” Ratner said. “We need to do it right.”
Nicholas Hirshon, author of the 2010 book “Images of America: Nassau Veterans Memorial Coliseum,” said the plaza is critical. “You need other development to support the arena,” said Hirshon, who teaches journalism at William Paterson University in Wayne, New Jersey.
Meanwhile, prospects for another gambit — an effort by Mangano to get the Islanders to move back to the Coliseum — are unclear.
Sources say team owners are upset with attendance at Barclays Center and substandard ice quality and are considering exercising a contract option that would allow the team to leave Brooklyn by early 2018. Ledecky and Malkin reportedly are considering building a new arena next to Citi Field in Queens or at state-run Belmont Park in Elmont — a move that would require approval from Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo.
Kevin Law, president of the Long Island Association, the region’s largest business group, warned that a new Belmont arena would cannibalize show opportunities and put the Coliseum project at risk of failure.
“It would be absolutely ridiculous for the state of New York to help facilitate the construction of a brand-new arena only nine miles from the renovated Coliseum,” Law said.
A state official said any development at Belmont would need to go through the RFP process, which hasn’t been released yet.
With Jim Baumbach and Steven Marcus