For more than a year, the Uniondale community center remained stuck in a swamp of political inertia and bureaucratic intransigence. A brand-new building stood locked and vacant, a symbol of promises unkept, of residents unheard.
Then along came a savior, in the shape of a separate, shiny proposal that filled Nassau County officials' ears with the bells and whistles of slot machines and increased revenue.
Suddenly, it was time to put Uniondale and its needs at center stage — at least for a moment. Suddenly, there was movement where before there was none. Suddenly, there was a willingness to negotiate, finally find a way to get the facility open and hand the keys to a local civic group.
That's because the community center suddenly became a pawn in a much larger game, whose most powerful player was Las Vegas Sands, the company that hopes to build a casino resort at the Nassau Coliseum site — also in Uniondale.
Luckily for the center and the community, Nassau County Legis. Siela Bynoe also knew how to play the game. And when Nassau officials wanted to transfer the Coliseum lease to Sands, Bynoe, a key vote because she represents the Nassau Hub area itself, wasn't going to hand over her "yes" vote easily.
First, she raised the community center issue at public hearings. In the following weeks, she and others continued the conversations in private about the center and additional community benefits for neighboring areas. Sands and county officials got the message: To get the larger prize, they'd have to make smaller deals.
So, they did. When the legislature voted May 22 on the lease transfer, Bynoe was a "yes." A few weeks later, the deal was done allowing United Neighborhood Center to open and operate the facility, which promises space for meetings and activities for all ages. UNC has been fighting for a community space for two decades. The approval came six years after Engel Burman first agreed to build the center as part of its agreement to construct rental apartments on the A. Holly Patterson nursing home campus — another smaller deal made to land a bigger one.
To anyone steeped in local politics, the game isn't new, even as the players and pieces change.
"It's unfortunate that the wheels of government get slowed down by politics, and that we routinely have to be situationally aware to tie delayed initiatives to current issues," Bynoe said. "You shouldn’t have to do that."
Often, Long Island advocates talk about how tough it is to build large developments, execute grand visions, and get the big projects done. But at times, it seems even more difficult to do the little things — to fix a library or improve a park or repair a sidewalk or open a facility that residents can call their own. Too often, it's not enough to illustrate the clear need, to make the obvious case, even to beg someone to listen.
This time, Uniondale won the game. And there could be more payoffs. The lease between the county and Sands provides millions of dollars in community benefits to come, whether or not there's a casino — benefits that hopefully won't remain behind locked doors. But what happens the next time, when there isn't a casino giant ready to play, when there's not an easy deal to make or political interests to fulfill?
Will it then be the community that loses?
Columnist Randi F. Marshall's opinions are her own.