The New York Islanders are in discussions with state officials...

The New York Islanders are in discussions with state officials about building a new hockey arena at Belmont Park in Elmont, seen here on May 30, 2015. Credit: Kevin P. Coughlin

Imagine hotels or a theater, some entertainment options, and more — a hub of activity — on what’s now barren land. Picture expanded horse racing and a fully operational Long Island Rail Road station. And then, the centerpiece: a Long Island home for the New York Islanders — a new arena built for major league hockey, from the ice and sight lines to suites, restaurants and amenities.

Imagine the potential future of Belmont Park.

It’s just a seed of an idea right now, but the possibility of something better at Belmont is certainly tempting.

Four long years ago, New York State began the process of developing 36 acres at Belmont. State officials issued a request for proposals, and four developers submitted ideas to produce jobs and economic activity, from a soccer stadium to supermarkets.

Then . . . nothing.

State officials said — often — that decisions were forthcoming. But in reality, no decision was ever imminent.

Earlier this month, news came that one bidder, the New York Cosmos soccer team, was in financial trouble. Then last week, the state canceled the request for proposals altogether.

That move came years too late, wasting time, money and plenty of economic potential. Nonetheless, now the state has an opportunity to start anew, to make Belmont Park and the land around it a success story. With careful and creative planning, the state could achieve long-out-of-reach goals: improved public transportation, modernization of the racetrack and new jobs and activity that could lift surrounding neighborhoods with new prosperity.

There’s a real possibility that the catalyst to such a plan would be a new home for the Islanders, along with hotels, businesses and more. That would be a fascinating turn of events, particularly for thousands of hockey fans who would see the Islanders return from Brooklyn, but not to Nassau Coliseum. But we’re a long way off from that puck drop, and the potential consequences have to be considered.

That starts with the communities of Floral Park and Elmont. Involving community leaders and gaining their support from the outset are important.

There are regional ramifications as well. For instance, what would an arena at Belmont mean for the Nassau Coliseum, just 10 miles away and due to reopen in April? Is there room for both? Some say there is. Or, this might be a chance to rethink what could happen there. Nassau County has a 34-year lease with the development group that’s renovating the Coliseum and also controls the Barclays Center. Once headed by developer Bruce Ratner, it’s now controlled by Russian oligarch Mikhail Prokhorov. Perhaps, ultimately, there’s a better deal here for all involved.

At Belmont itself, there’s the important effort to rebuild the LIRR station so it can be used year-round. The aging wooden structure is open only on race days, but more activity in the area, especially from an arena, would create the need for a fully operational station. Development at Belmont should subsidize the effort.

Finally, there’s the New York Racing Association, whose financial future is uncertain. NYRA, which runs the track and leases some land at and around Belmont, would benefit from new development, but it must prioritize the needs of the surrounding community. There’s also the possibility of winterizing Belmont’s track so that horse racing could move from Aqueduct in Queens to Belmont, allowing Aqueduct to expand its casino. That might add another party to the table — Genting New York LLC, which operates the video machines at Aqueduct. Could Genting play a role in or help fund development at Belmont in exchange for something more at Aqueduct?

As these ideas percolate, where does the state go from here? Importantly, state officials say that they don’t think another request for proposals is legally required, although they note that legislation in Albany might be necessary. Everyone has to get it straight from the start. Some may remember when then-Nassau County Executive Thomas Suozzi tried to hand the Coliseum land over to then-Islanders owner Charles Wang without a request for proposals. The political fallout was significant, and started Wang’s effort off on uncertain footing, from which the Town of Hempstead made sure it never recovered.

If state officials don’t need an official request, that could speed the process. But they have to be thoughtful and do this right. That means moving forward with a broad, economically viable vision, without further delay. If that includes an arena for the Islanders, it could be a win for all. But other ideas should receive full consideration, too.

Long Island’s large swaths of land suitable for development often lie empty, as fights over the future wear on. The state has to make the most of this chance. Belmont Park is a jewel, and it and the area around it can return to the track’s former splendor. It’s time to transform the unused land and lost potential into a grander reality to push Belmont Park, nearby communities and the region into the winner’s circle.


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