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Other locales, including Suffolk, want Islanders

Artist's rendering of the planned Lighthouse project /

Artist's rendering of the planned Lighthouse project / Suffolk County Executive Steve Levy Credit: Handout / File photo by Alan Raia

Suffolk County Executive Steve Levy is ready to keep the Islanders on Long Island - but just farther east.

If the Lighthouse project, a proposed $3.8-billion development of office buildings, apartments and retail space around a rebuilt Nassau Coliseum, doesn't receive the approval of Hempstead Town, Levy said that Suffolk County is "as open today as we ever were" to welcome the Islanders.

Levy said an "envoy" of Islanders owner Charles Wang called him on Oct. 2, one day before Wang's self-imposed deadline for "certainty." Wang had said he would begin to consider other options if he and Lighthouse project partner Scott Rechler do not get the approvals they needed by that date.

The Hempstead Town Board held a public zoning hearing on the project on Sept. 22. That day, the developers submitted a 4,000-page final environmental impact statement, which the town board must review and approve before voting on new zoning. There's no time frame for the vote. Hempstead Supervisor Kate Murray has said she has invited Wang to meet to discuss scaling down the project.

"If it does fall apart in Nassau, we would pursue it," Levy said. "If he's ready to talk to us, we'll be willing to work with him very vigorously."

Wang and other Lighthouse officials could not be reached for comment.

Last Wednesday, a published report said Wang was pulling the plug on the project. In an interview the next day, however, Wang said he had not stopped his efforts to build his $3.8-billion development around a new Coliseum, and Hempstead officials said they had not been told the project was dead.

Wang has a history with Suffolk. When his efforts to build new Nassau County headquarters for Computer Associates, the software company he headed at the time, faltered in the late 1980s, then-Suffolk County Executive Pat Halpin met with company officials to encourage them to move east. A deal was made in 1989 and three years later CA's employees moved from Garden City to lavish headquarters in Islandia.

Twenty years later, Suffolk is again waiting in the wings.

"If you change the personalities on the local level, it could make all the difference in the world," Levy said, adding that there are now "three or four" possible locations in the county for the Islanders.


Brentwood site mentioned

While he wouldn't discuss specific sites for the Islanders, officials who asked not to be named pointed to the Pilgrim Psychiatric Center property in Brentwood as a potential spot for a new Islanders arena. Part of that land is now occupied by the western campus of Suffolk County Community College, and developer Gerald Wolkoff bought 462 acres for $21 million in February 2002 and announced plans to build a $4-billion residential and office complex. Those plans are still under review. An arena, if it were constructed, would be built on other parts of the site.

Separately, Levy said he has talked to Wang about bringing a minor-league hockey team to a site in Yaphank.

Despite his interest, Levy said he expects Wang and partner Scott Rechler to try to make things work in Nassau County.

"They've invested so much time and money into the Lighthouse that they're not going to easily abandon that," Levy said.

Since Wang's Oct. 3 deadline has passed, his options to relocate the team have taken on new focus. For months, Wang has argued that he could sell or move the team, which loses about $20 million a year. The offers, he said, are there to be considered.

And while Suffolk's gestures prove that point, the hurdles beyond Nassau County are just as significant as those in the Town of Hempstead, sources said. It will take far more than a snap of the fingers and a signature on a dotted line to sell the team, move the team or even change the current plan, they added. The team's lease with Nassau requires it to play its home games in the Coliseum until 2015.

There is an out to that lease, officials say. Once the new lease, signed earlier this month by the Lighthouse Development Corp. and Nassau County Executive Thomas Suozzi, is submitted to the Nassau Legislature for approval, a clock starts and legislators have 120 days to approve it. If they don't, Wang can leave Nassau without a penalty. But the lease can't be submitted to the legislature until Hempstead approves the final environmental impact statement.


Isles have options off Island

Officials in Queens and Brooklyn have also expressed interest in becoming a home for the Islanders and at least a dozen other cities are looking for a way into the National Hockey League, according to a Newsday analysis.

But of those sites, few have reached out to Wang directly, and many come with complications, concerns or caveats. Among the cities beyond New York - including Kansas City, Mo.; Hamilton, Ontario; Quebec City; Portland, Ore.; and Hartford - most said they have no allegiance to the Islanders and would prefer an expansion team.

Complicating matters, any move or sale of a professional hockey team needs approval from the National Hockey League board of governors, taking the decision out of Wang's hands. And the Islanders are not the only team contemplating a move: at least five other NHL teams could be up for a sale or move, sources said.

On Oct. 3, the day of Wang's self imposed deadline, NHL commissioner Gary Bettman said he expected Wang to exhaust all possibilities for staying in Nassau.

"I think at this point he has to consider all his options, and as I understand it, his options are first and foremost see what he can do about the arena situation," Bettman said. "We really haven't explored any meaningful way beyond that. First and foremost, his goal would be to keep the team on Long Island."

Other potential homes for the Islanders are watching carefully.

"If they're interested, we're interested," said Dan Andrews, spokesman for Queens borough President Helen Marshall. A possible Queens home would be Willets Point, near Citi Field. "We don't know how real it is because they haven't come in and given us any idea of what they'd be looking for."


Joining Nets in Brooklyn?

Brooklyn, meanwhile, is much further along in its effort to redevelop the Atlantic Yards area, where officials hope to break ground this year on a new arena and real estate project that would bring the New Jersey Nets of the National Basketball Association to the borough.

Sources with knowledge of the situation say that there have been no conversations between Atlantic Yards developer Bruce Ratner and Lighthouse partners Wang and Rechler. And they say that as designed now, the arena there could not house a National Hockey League team because it doesn't meet NHL regulations.

But that's not deterring Brooklyn borough President Marty Markowitz.

"I know we would welcome them as the Brooklyn Islanders," Markowitz said. "Let's get the Brooklyn Nets playing here. Once an arena is built, all things are then possible."

To move to Queens or Brooklyn, the Islanders would need a new agreement on so-called territorial rights, perhaps with a fee paid to the New York Rangers, sources close to the situation confirmed. The Islanders' current agreement allows them to play a certain distance from the Rangers, who had been playing in New York well before the Islanders. The Rangers are owned by Cablevision, Newsday's parent.

But in the end, no matter how many options Wang thinks he has, it's not entirely up to him.

Said NHL deputy commissioner Bill Star, in an e-mail to the Toronto Star last week: "We are still not in a position where we believe any of our existing franchises should be active candidates for relocation."

With Jim Baumbach

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