Revamped, costlier $2.3B project would add long-sought terminal at MacArthur Airport
A $2.3 billion, 15-year redevelopment plan envisions construction of a long-sought air terminal connecting Long Island MacArthur Airport and the Ronkonkoma Long Island Rail Road station.
The proposal — which for the first time involves Islip Town and is a substantial revision of a $1.1 billion plan unveiled three years ago that called for construction of a 17,500-seat hockey arena and sports-related offices and medical facilities — would boost tourism and economic development by redeveloping a Suffolk County-owned parking lot and adding a convention center and 300-room hotel, county officials said. The project would also include a smaller sports complex, medical facilities and office space.
Chicago-based developer Jones Lang LaSalle, tapped by the county in 2018 to serve as the master developer for the original arena plan, has been named by Islip to serve in the same capacity to develop the MacArthur terminal, officials said. Jones Lang LaSalle was project manager of the $1 billion renovation of Madison Square Garden.
"We think this is the most transformational opportunity that Suffolk County has had in 50-plus years," Jones Lang LaSalle vice chairman Derek Trulson told Newsday in an interview Wednesday. "If the town and the county align ... we think there is an opportunity for real economic development beyond everybody’s wildest dreams."
The plan faces numerous logistical hurdles, ranging from financing and questions about its impact on traffic and sewers to relocating an Islip Town composting facility that sits on land that would be part of the development. The air terminal would require approval from the Federal Aviation Administration.
County documents say developers and local officials will seek "creative" financing plans, including federal, state and private funds.
In an interview, Natalie Wright, Suffolk economic development commissioner, acknowledged the Ronkonkoma plan will face logistical hurdles before ground is broken.
"This is a big project for the county, and there are significant infrastructure costs that will be required of whatever is developed here," she said. "There is no sewer. There’s roadway improvements that need to happen to facilitate additional traffic and other items that need to be brought to the site regardless of what the development would be."
The $1.2 trillion federal infrastructure bill signed earlier this month by President Joe Biden makes projects of this scale possible, Trulson said.
"This is that type of project," he said. "This is what Congress had in mind for communities like Ronkonkoma and other parts of the country."
But the plan, which officials and a former Ronkonkoma civic leader said was developed quietly over the past two years, got off to a rocky start last week when Republican county lawmakers complained they were not kept informed as the project evolved.
Long, multiphase road to completion
The 3.1-million-square-foot project is expected to take 15 years to complete in four phases, county documents show.
The proposed development would include:
- A new terminal on Islip Town-owned property on the northern portion of MacArthur’s airfield. Details, such as the size and cost of the facility, are not spelled out in county documents.
- A 190,000-square-foot convention center to be built alongside the terminal, including a 100,000-square-foot, ground-floor exhibit hall, 40,000 square feet for meeting spaces and 50,000 square feet for support areas.
- A 300-room hotel with meeting areas, designed for air travelers and convention attendees.
- A privately funded sports and entertainment center, including a 5,000-seat outdoor stadium and 4,000- to 6,500-seat indoor arena. Potential tenants were not identified.
- Commercial office complex, including a "life sciences center" for commercial and medical offices, research facilities and science education programs.
The development, now dubbed Midway Crossing, is the latest iteration of a project first proposed in April 2018, when Suffolk officials named a consortium of builders as master developers of the Ronkonkoma site. That group at the time included Jones Lang LaSalle and Ronkonkoma Vision Project LLC, led by sports arena developers Ray Bartoszek, Ben Bouma and Kevin Ackles.
Jones Lang LaSalle and Ronkonkoma Vision Project were picked over three competing development teams. One of those rejected at the time had proposed building a northern terminal at MacArthur.
The centerpiece of the Jones Lang LaSalle/Ronkonkoma Vision plan was a 17,500-seat arena that could draw an NHL franchise and major entertainers. But the NHL and the New York Islanders said they had no interest. The Islanders new $1.2 billion UBS Arena opened Saturday night.
Meanwhile, questions were raised by Suffolk lawmakers about Bartoszek’s group. A 2018 Newsday story showed the group had exaggerated its roles in the sports industry and had touted arena development projects that failed to materialize.
Ronkonkoma Vision Project dropped out of the plan as the arena portion was downsized, Trulson has said.
Republican county legislators said Tuesday that the revamped proposal caught them by surprise. Their complaints prompted the legislature to postpone until Dec. 7 a vote to formalize the agreement for county and Islip officials to work together on the project.
Legis. Tom Cilmi (R-Bay Shore) and Legis. Anthony Piccirillo (R-Holtsville) said they had not heard about the plans in more than a year, despite asking repeatedly for updates.
"To keep us in the dark about this project is a slap in the face, not just to us but this whole body as an institution," said Piccirillo, whose district borders the development zone.
Cilmi said he was "sort of feeling like a second-class citizen here."
Representatives of County Executive Steve Bellone, a Democrat, said the flap was a misunderstanding.
"It was my understanding that the Republican side had been briefed on the project, so I do apologize if that was not the case," Wright told lawmakers.
Legislators also questioned whether the community was aware of the new proposal and how it differed from the earlier version.
Suffolk officials had said in 2018 that the initial plans were developed in consultation with the Ronkonkoma Civic Association and the ad hoc Ronkonkoma Visioning Implementation Committee, which included members of groups such as the hamlet’s fire department. But the civic association disbanded last year, and the visioning group is inactive.
"There is no more Ronkonkoma Civic, so who exactly decided all this and why wasn’t the legislature involved?" Piccirillo said.
Cilmi and others also raised questions about contingency plans if the sports and office complexes failed to attract tenants.
Trulson, of Jones Lang LaSalle, declined to comment when asked to respond to questions raised by legislators.
Islip Town comes aboard
In a statement emailed Wednesday to Newsday, Islip Supervisor Angie Carpenter, a Republican, said the town board had been "fully briefed" on the plan earlier this year, adding it "could be a groundbreaking, transformative project for the bi-county region."
Officials and former Ronkonkoma Civic Association president Bruce Edwards said the original proposal was altered over the past two years following pushback from residents. The idea of adding the air terminal to the plan evolved as Islip, which previously was not part of planning the arena and convention center, became engaged in talks with Suffolk officials, county documents show.
Edwards, who now lives in Sayville, said members of the community were aware that the proposal had been changed, but he said many residents never liked the larger arena. They generally support the convention center because it is expected to provide jobs, he said.
"There was a lot of pushback on the arena. I guess they decided to make that less of a star of the show," Edwards said, adding that the new proposal "kind of makes sense. ... I think they took a lot of input from the community right from the start. You know these things are going to morph on their own."
Edwards said the completion of the UBS Arena made the original hockey arena proposal obsolete, prompting the developers to shift their plans.
Suffolk officials have said that existing parking — about 3,700 spaces — will be replaced with facilities such as underground garages.
The property also houses a compost facility for Islip Town that will be relocated, Wright said, adding developers will work over the next year to identify a new place for the facility.
The new terminal would for the first time provide a direct connection between the Ronkonkoma railroad station and MacArthur. Project planners hope to have a moving walkway that would shuttle passengers from the station to the terminal in under 8 minutes, Wright said.
She called the connection between MacArthur and the LIRR station "one of the marquee aspects" of the project.
Project leaders plan to seek grant funding and are eyeing federal stimulus money for the infrastructure improvements, Wright said.
Discover Long Island, the region’s Hauppauge-based tourism agency, supports the venture. President and chief executive Kristen Reynolds said despite Long Island’s bustling tourism industry, it’s mostly reliant on visitors who travel for leisure rather than business. Weekday business travelers would provide a needed boost for hotels, she said.
Long Island business leaders have long said a first-class convention center is crucial to boosting economic development.
"A convention center located in the heart of the destination at Ronkonkoma would not only provide attendees easy access to NYC and the East End but would also create the demand needed for increased air lift at Long Island MacArthur Airport," Reynolds said in a statement to Newsday.
With Jim Baumbach