‘Here in this center, men and women will come to enjoy and learn of the noblest creations of the mind and spirit. They will meet here with their neighbor in community activities . . . I hope they will meet here to teach and to learn, to end fear and ignorance, to end all bigotry and prejudice, and to put all hate to flight.”
I was seated on a platform in 1964 when those words were spoken by President Lyndon B. Johnson at the dedication of the John F. Kennedy Cultural Center at Mitchel Field. Robert Kennedy was seated with us, too. That center was to be composed of seven structures: a concert hall; a library; a social center; a forum theater; a fine arts gallery; a museum of science, industry, history and transportation; and an enclosed coliseum as the project’s centerpiece.
In those days, I was a member of the then-Nassau County Board of Supervisors, which governed the county. The board was predominantly Republican, and Eugene Nickerson, then county executive, was a Democrat. However, when it came to planning the 630-acre Mitchel Field, which the county had purchased from the federal government, we agreed politics should not be a part of the property’s development. It was envisioned as a downtown for Nassau County, with its core being the JFK Cultural Center and the enclosed coliseum.
To prevent politics or favoritism from interfering with the development of Mitchel Field, we devised the Mitchel Field Development Corp. to formulate plans for the utilization of the parcel. In 1968, that corporation was formed with the assent of the county and the Town of Hempstead. It was a bipartisan, non-compensated group of professional planners and builders. The corporation generated an elaborate plan for the Mitchel Field property embracing the JFK Cultural Center, an entertainment hub and the coliseum, and provided for the construction of commercial enterprises and mixed housing. The Board of Supervisors approved the plan, but augmented the seating capacity of the coliseum by 4,000 seats so that it would be large enough to accommodate a major-league franchise.
When Republican Ralph Caso became the county executive in 1970, one of his first acts was to dissolve the Mitchel Field Development Corp. and jettison the development plans. The then-15,000-seat Nassau Veterans Memorial Coliseum opened with two major-league franchises: the New York Nets and the New York Islanders. The Nets won two ABA championships at the Coliseum, and the Islanders won four Stanley Cups.
Two years after Mike Bossy led the Islanders to their fourth straight Stanley Cup, Nassau County entered into a lease with an arena management company called SMG. The contract negotiated with SMG was immediately labeled as the worst arena contract in professional sports. SMG garnered every imaginable profit from the building and residuals, while the Islanders received almost nothing and Nassau was burdened by large repair and maintenance bills.
In the name of progress and judicial order, Nassau County is now governed by a 19-member county legislature with its own staff and building. But after all these years, we are back where we started — except for the fact that our renovated Coliseum is too small to attract a major-league franchise.
This is not the time to place blame for our enormous failures in the development of Mitchel Field. However, with a new county executive and Hempstead Town supervisor, perhaps we can have the kind of bipartisan support and leadership that we had in Nassau County a half century ago.
This may be our last chance.
Sol Wachtler, a former chief judge of New York State, is distinguished adjunct professor at Touro Law School. Michael Dobie’s column returns next week.