Critics of a $2.8 billion Ronkonkoma redevelopment proposal are raising questions about whether a convention center and sports complex included in the plan are economically viable, and say the project would strain key infrastructure such as water, roads and sewers.
The development, Midway Crossing, would create a business hub anchored by the convention center and a new terminal at Long Island MacArthur Airport. Critics, including elected officials, planning experts and residents, said the project has some potential benefits — such as the first direct link between the airport and the Ronkonkoma Long Island Rail Road station — but also cite several drawbacks, such as the project's size.
"I have serious concerns on the lack of public input and due diligence on this project," Suffolk Legis. Anthony Piccirillo (R-Holtsville) told Newsday, adding his phone has been flooded with messages in recent months from residents concerned about the project headed by Chicago real estate giant JLL. "Maybe the developer can potentially scale this project down and present something that is palatable in the community. … This was not [meant] to be urban sprawl."
The project faces myriad regulatory hurdles, including multiple approvals from Islip Town, Suffolk County and state and federal agencies. JLL is in the early stages of preparing environmental studies of the site, and public hearings could be a year or more away, officials said. Planning and construction are expected to take 10 to 15 years.
WHAT TO KNOW
- Critics, including Ronkonkoma-area residents, elected officials and planning experts, question whether the proposed convention center and sports arenas will draw enough business to be economically viable.
- The size of the project will overwhelm the area's roads and water and sewer systems, officials and residents say.
- Supporters of the plan say it will create thousands of jobs, from hotel and airport service jobs to high-tech health sciences positions.
- Suffolk has scheduled "open house" community meetings from 2-8 p.m. on July 11 and 2-8 p.m. on July 21 at Lakeland Fire Department, 929 Johnson Ave., Ronkonkoma. Renderings and other information will be available for review any time between those hours.
Economics, infrastructure concerns
JLL, a multinational corporation with more than 98,000 employees and 2021 revenue of $19.4 billion, specializes in building and managing large projects such as hotels, military housing and sports and health care facilities. The company was project manager for the $1 billion renovation of Madison Square Garden, which was completed in 2013.
Midway Crossing has won support from Long Island economists, business leaders and the tourism industry. Supporters tout the plan's potential for creating thousands of jobs, ranging from hotel and airline industry service positions to high-tech health sciences jobs.
Suffolk and Islip Town separately hired JLL to build the project on 179 acres of county- and town-owned land, including the northern portion of MacArthur and a vast parking lot used by LIRR commuters. JLL must build new parking to replace the stalls that would be lost, officials have said.
The proposal calls for 2.7 million square feet of new construction, including the convention center; a 300-room hotel; health sciences facilities; the new air terminal, and two arenas: a 4,000-seat indoor arena and an outdoor venue with 4,000 to 6,000 seats.
JLL officials have said the plan's disparate components would be like interlocking pieces that would support one another to ensure the project's overall success.
But critics say the company's economic projections — such as a fivefold increase in MacArthur passengers, from 600,000 per year to 3 million annually — are not realistic and doubt the proposed convention center can compete with venues in Hartford, Connecticut, Providence, Rhode Island, and upstate Albany.
They also said the developer may not be able to land sports teams and musical acts to play and perform at the arenas, pointing to competition from UBS Arena in Elmont and other venues, as well as a saturated New York sports market with nine teams in the four major professional leagues.
There also are questions about whether Ronkonkoma's roads and water and sewage infrastructure can handle such a large project without a major overhaul, and whether the Federal Aviation Administration and state and local agencies will approve a new northern air terminal at MacArthur.
"There’s a big what if? Can they move the terminal right next to the Long Island Rail Road?" Richard Murdocco, a Stony Brook University development and planning professor, told Newsday. "If they can't, the project goes bust. … MacArthur Airport isn't exactly a hotbed of aeronautical activity at this time."
American Airlines, one of four carriers serving MacArthur, announced on June 20 it will eliminate its two daily flights from the airport as of Sept. 7, citing pilot shortages.
Murdocco also questioned whether the convention center would draw enough business, noting studies showing a downturn in the national convention industry over the past two decades.
'Where's the data? Where's the demand?'
-Richard Murdocco, a Stony Brook University development and planning professor
Credit: Newsday/ John Paraskevas
"Where's the data?" Murdocco said. "Where's the demand?"
Piccirillo said water and sewer systems must be installed or upgraded, noting Ronkonkoma sits atop a major aquifer that supplies drinking water to hundreds of homes. He said he is concerned environmental reviews will be superficial, adding JLL and regulatory agencies must do a "deep dive" to ensure drinking water is protected.
"Obviously, it's a big concern," he said. "I think we have to do more than just the checking of the boxes that's usually done on Long Island."
Some residents of Ronkonkoma and neighboring communities such as Lake Ronkonkoma and Holbrook said they are concerned because JLL has not named sports teams that might play at the arenas. JLL in 2018 had pitched the idea of bringing a National Hockey League club to Ronkonkoma, but the Islanders and the NHL said they had no interest in the plan.
Tourist and traffic misgivings
Residents also question JLL's depiction of Ronkonkoma as a potential tourist destination.
'What I'm against is the arena ... the traffic is undoable.'
-Joann Carignan, Ronkonkoma resident
Credit: Newsday/ John Paraskevas
"What I'm against is the arena," Ronkonkoma resident Joann Carignan told Newsday. "Where we live and where this is going to be, the traffic is undoable. … I don't know what [visitors would be] touring. What tourism are they talking about?"
Holbrook resident Evelyn Vollgraff said cars using the airport and convention center would "bury us in traffic."
"[There is] absolutely nothing there that is going to do anything good for Holbrook," she said.
John Cameron, a Woodbury engineer working for JLL, said an "exhaustive" traffic analysis will help the developer improve roads serving the project. Parking would be expanded from the current 3,600 stalls to about 10,000, not counting airport parking, which will depend on the final design for the new terminal, he said.
MacArthur currently has 2,455 customer parking spaces, Islip officials said.
Some supporters of the project agree that certain parts of the proposal should be reconsidered.
Brookhaven Supervisor Edward P. Romaine has expressed support for Midway Crossing, but he and other town officials have questioned whether the arenas will be successful.
In a March 1 letter to the Suffolk County Economic Development Corp., Romaine and town council members Neil Foley and Kevin LaValle pointed to Ronkonkoma's proximity to NYCB Live's Nassau Coliseum in Uniondale, UBS Arena in Elmont and a town-owned amphitheater in Farmingville.
"With all these venues so close, venues already battling over acts to bring in and residents having limited money for shows to go to, the question is do we really need another two entertainment venues?" the Brookhaven officials wrote.
They expressed concern about the impact of airport noise on residents of Brookhaven communities such as Centereach and Holtsville.
"They're talking about international flights," LaValle told Newsday. "Now we're talking about 747s flying over our heads."
In an email to Newsday, Suffolk spokeswoman Marykate Guilfoyle wrote that Midway Crossing "would deliver tremendous economic benefits to residents," and added that residents' concerns "must first be addressed through an extensive outreach process and a thorough environmental and regulatory review."
The county has scheduled community meetings on July 11 and July 21 to discuss the plan with residents.
Ronkonkoma Chamber of Commerce president Kevin L. Hyms said he supports the convention center because it would create jobs. But he questioned whether the arenas are needed, pointing to the Islanders' move in 2021 from Nassau Coliseum to UBS Arena, after several years of splitting games between the Coliseum and Barclays Center in Brooklyn.
"Look at the Nassau Coliseum," Hyms said. "It's very much underutilized at this point. Why build these if we can't get the sports teams?"
JLL officials wrote in an email to Newsday that events at the venues would include "small concerts, minor-league sports and high school, college and recreational sports tournaments."
Suffolk Legis. Trish Bergin (R-East Islip), whose district includes the project site, said she worries residents have not received enough information about the proposal.
"Perhaps the community needs more information and more feedback and [to] get involved in this project, because it has some very good components to it," Bergin said. "Of course, we have to address traffic concerns and infrastructure concerns."
Hyms said he expects the project to be scaled down as the planning and review process moves forward.
"I think that we will get something in the future," he said. "It may be too large, but I think we will get something there, so a compromise will be in order."
With Brinley Hineman