Suffolk legislative committee members questioned Wednesday how county officials chose a $1.1 billion plan to build a sports and convention complex in Ronkonkoma, but the panel voted to support the project.
Members of the Economic Development Committee voted 3-0 with two abstentions along party lines to allow county officials to enter into a deal with Chicago developer Jones Lang LaSalle to build the complex — which would include a 17,500-seat arena, offices, shops and a convention center — on 40 acres of land owned by the county and Islip Town between MacArthur Airport and the Long Island Rail Road’s Ronkonkoma station.
The full Suffolk Legislature is expected to vote on the plan Tuesday. At least 10 “yes” votes are required to advance the proposal.
Wednesday’s vote occurred at the end of a two-hour meeting dominated by questions over how county officials chose the arena proposal over three other plans that called for housing, retail or industrial development on the site, which is currently occupied by thousands of parking spaces.
A committee of county economic and planning officials in April picked the JLL proposal following two years of review and discussion involving Ronkonkoma residents and civic and business groups, who viewed the plans at presentations in March.
But Legis. Robert Trotta (R-Fort Salonga) and Legis. Kevin McCaffrey (R-Lindenhurst), both of whom abstained, said they were not aware of the Ronkonkoma development plans until they read a Newsday article in April announcing the county’s decision.
“This is the biggest economic development in Suffolk County for a long time, and not once were we told what was happening,” McCaffrey said before the vote. “It’s not fair and it’s not right.”
The resolution was supported by Legis. William Lindsay III (D-Bohemia), Kara Hahn (D-Setauket) and Susan Berland (D-Dix Hills).
Lindsay, noting the community review process, said the plan had broad public support.
“It wasn’t really for us to make the decision,” he said. “It was up to the community and the scoring that was in place...I don’t think you just stop the process because you don’t like the process.”
County officials are weighing whether to enter into a memorandum of agreement naming JLL the master developer of the Ronkonkoma project. The memorandum, if approved by the legislature and County Executive Steve Bellone, would give JLL and its partners eight months to develop details of the proposal, including funding and plans for roads and sewage treatment facilities.
JLL and a three-member investment team led by banker Ray Bartoszek have proposed a sprawling complex of commercial and retail development that would include medical facilities and a conference-convention center just north of the airport.
The centerpiece of the plan is a hockey arena, but JLL’s 76-page proposal does not identify possible tenants. The New York Islanders, who are developing their own plans for a new arena in Belmont Park, and the National Hockey League have said they have no interest in the Ronkonkoma plan.
John Cameron, of Woodbury-based Cameron Engineering & Associates, which is helping JLL develop the complex, said Wednesday the firm is seeking potential tenants, and the plan could change if potential partners are not found.
“The two toughest elements to finance are the arena and the convention center, we know that,” he told legislators before the vote. “If there’s no takers for the arena, it’s possible we come back with no arena.”
Supporters of the plan who spoke at the hearing touted it as an economic engine that could provide jobs for local residents, and give Suffolk its first major sports venue.
“What do we have?” said Steve Smith of Ronkonkoma, noting that Nassau County, Queens and Brooklyn have arenas and baseball stadiums. “Suffolk County, we really don’t have one.”
Eileen Panico, who was part of a Ronkonkoma “visioning” committee composed of residents, said community members preferred the arena plan and opposed proposals for housing. She said “community services” for housing complexes cost more money than they generate in tax revenue.
Some lawmakers questioned whether developers who had proposed housing for the Ronkonkoma site had been misled by county officials, if residents opposed apartments.
“It wasn’t a fair process,” Trotta said.
Hahn, who voted for the arena plan, said she was concerned that what might benefit the Ronkonkoma community may not help the county as a whole.
“We have to vote on whether what’s being proposed is what the region needs,” she said.
Correction: Legislators Robert Trotta and Kevin McCaffrey abstained on the vote to support a sports and entertainment complex in Ronkonkoma. A prior version of this story incorrectly described how they voted.