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Few Clouds 39° Good Evening

The Coliseum -- checkered past, uncertain future

Nassau Coliseum under construction and Nassau Coliseum today.

Nassau Coliseum under construction and Nassau Coliseum today. Photo Credit: Newsday / Danielle Finkelstein

As Nassau Veterans Memorial Coliseum closes its doors next week, the memories are flowing -- each one clear, with details so distinct.

Perhaps you're thinking about Bobby Nystrom's 7:11 goal in overtime to give the New York Islanders its first Stanley Cup in 1980. Or you're remembering when Roosevelt's Julius Erving scored 31 points in the win that gave the New York Nets the 1976 American Basketball Association championship. Or you're recalling a favorite concert where there wasn't a bad seat.

Think about how loud the building got during the best of times. There were moments when Long Islanders came together there, often in one voice. There was the friendly tailgate pregame, the cheer of "Yes!" after goals were scored, and cars honking in rhythm long after a game.

But also remember the crowded concourses, lousy food and lengthy bathroom lines. Recall walking up the stairs in the 300 sections, balancing food and drink, without a handrail in sight. Think about the hours spent trying to exit the parking lot.

An era is ending. This week, the Islanders will let their atrocious lease with Nassau County expire, and after Billy Joel plays one final show on Aug. 4, the doors of the barn will shut.

It's the end, for now, of a shared experience and a shared history like no other on Long Island. It's also the end of an arena that's been decrepit for decades -- underscoring failed rebuilding efforts and lost opportunities.

In 1972, the $32-million Coliseum opened with grand promises for the best of amenities. "Every aspect of the patron's comfort has been carefully considered," an ad supplement in Newsday proclaimed. It was a very different time, when Rheingold beer was king and the Coliseum's new Meadowbrook Parkway exit was projected to single-handedly solve traffic concerns.

The Coliseum was to be a game-changer for the region, initially as the centerpiece of a larger vision to build out Mitchel Field into a cultural, commercial and residential hub. While pieces of that effort went forward, including the arena itself, much of the rest never happened.

And that's why disappointment seeps in now. After so much promise and possibility, the reality has been a deteriorating oval of concrete surrounded by a sea of asphalt.

At the start, the building's future was closely tied to a then-growing county -- and those ties have remained throughout the last four decades. The Coliseum's bumpy road in many ways has mirrored Nassau County's own twists and turns and often defined the county's own successes and failures. And like the Coliseum, the county has had its share of bad management, lousy finances and awful deal-making.

To be sure, there has been a parade of attempts -- big and small -- to transform the Coliseum and the area around it. There was talk of light rail and express buses, road improvements and parking garages. There were promises of minor league baseball, hotels, housing, a casino and more. There was the Lighthouse Project, a $3.8-billion mixed-use development plan by Islanders owner Charles Wang. And there was the $400-million voter referendum in 2011 to build a new arena.

Every plan included a new or renovated Coliseum. Each one failed. Then, in 2012, the team had had enough, and announced it was moving to Brooklyn.

Questions have always surrounded the arena's management, its finances, its maintenance, and its future. The lease among the Islanders, Nassau and SMG, the management company, was an albatross from the beginning because it didn't provide enough revenue to either the team or the county -- and because its 30-year extension in 1985 meant that little could change until 2015. And trouble has followed the arena. Dare we invoke the name John Spano, who tried to buy the Islanders and promised area redevelopment, until it was discovered that he was a fraud?

Now, a new era begins in Uniondale. But many of the same questions for the Coliseum and Nassau County remain.

Expectations of fresh paint and the whirl of construction -- and, eventually, a newly renovated arena -- have replaced the hopes for a Stanley Cup. There are new promises, too, that both the county and the arena's new leaseholder, Nassau Events Center, a company run by developer Bruce Ratner, will make money, without the bill-paying and maintenance issues that still plague the county, the Islanders and SMG.

But there's plenty of doubt, from what the arena will look like to whether a minor league team will play there. And the ultimate question -- whether there will ever be anything else on that very-valuable 77 acres other than asphalt -- remains.

There are few answers. Lawsuits between Ratner and developer Ed Blumenfeld over who has say in the site complicate matters. Deals with a minor league hockey team, retailers and restaurateurs have yet to be inked.

This week, there are memories to be treasured and mementos to be stored. Nassau Coliseum was, after all, a place where Long Islanders grew up, raised families, laughed, cried and cheered.

The next era may not include championship hockey or basketball. But one can hope for better management, better planning and fewer disappointments. Then, perhaps, there'll be new, lasting memories to make, too.