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Opinion

Nassau must focus on new way to finance Coliseum

Nassau County needs to make a power play soon on financing for a new sports and entertainment arena.

The lackluster zoning plan unveiled by the Town of Hempstead for the 77 acres of county property surrounding the aging Coliseum bombed. Not only did it crush any effort to maximize the potential of this last open tract in a calcifying suburb, it crimped any possibility of extracting top dollar for the land.

By rejecting developer Charles Wang's proposal to maximize the housing, commercial and retail space that could be built there, the town also nixed his ability to use those profits to pay the estimated $350 million for a new Coliseum. And the town's zoning and other restrictions don't make any alternative development of the land valuable enough to give the county enough money to finance the project on its own.

Wang, owner of the Islanders, leases the arena for its hockey games. For years he has been been prodding Nassau to provide a better facility, as it promises in its lease agreement. That's why former County Executive Thomas Suozzi tied developing the land to the building of a new arena.

There is no choice now but to divorce those two ideas. Still, the county must find a way to finance a new arena - a way that doesn't use scarce taxpayer dollars.

County Executive Edward Mangano thinks the winning hand is to bring a big-time gaming casino there. Not only would the sale of the land to the Shinnecock Nation of Southhampton provide a big, one-shot payment to plug the beleaguered county budget, but it would also add a recurring revenue stream. No deal has been worked out, but the industry standard is that state coffers get 25 percent of the net revenue from the slot machines. And a county then gets 25 percent of the state's take. So Nassau could be looking at seven cents on each dollar yielded by every slot machine. Not small change.

While Mangano is aggressively trying to win this game, the smart odds say there won't be a line for the cashier's window anytime soon. If at all.

The Shinnecocks, whose long overdue federal recognition just hit another procedural bump, have yet to propose a casino plan. Where would it be placed on the site? How big would it be, and what hours would it operate? The tribe needs to tell us how the cars and the buses would get there without making the local traffic even worse.

And while an Indian gaming casino can bypass the town's oversight, it would still need to show strong community support to garner the political support it needs at three levels of government. Meanwhile, Hofstra University has already come out against the plan, and the Village of Hempstead may be next in that queue.

The county legislature would have to approve the sale of the land for the casino. The New York State Legislature and the governor must approve of the revenue-sharing agreement. Then the federal Bureau of Indian Affairs would have to rule that all of these deals were in the best interest of the Shinnecocks. Finally, the U.S. Congress would have to pass legislation taking the acreage the county sold into a federal trust for the tribe.

That's one big game of political roulette in a volatile election year.

There is, however, an easier path for the Shinnecocks: Belmont Park. Yet inexplicably, Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver has put a mysterious forcefield around what is considered the ideal spot: a racetrack surrounded by abundant land that is adjacent to major parkways and the Long Island Rail Road. The community there is welcoming.

Since the state owns the Belmont land, the county wouldn't profit as it would in East Garden City, but it would still get a cut of the slots. Some of that money could fund the new Coliseum. But Silver opposes racino gambling at Belmont.

Silver's preference is that a video-slot-machine-only facility move into Aqueduct Raceway, just a few miles away from Belmont. And Gov. David A. Paterson, who desperately wants the $300-million franchise fee the racino will pay upfront for this year's budget, won't even talk to the Shinncocks about Belmont.

 

So the county and Wang seem to have little choice but to pursue an alternative to the casino. And the clock is running. Wang's lease expires in 2015, and he understandably wants to know by next year whether Nassau wants to keep its only professional sports team. And Long Islanders want to know whether this sophisticated suburb will be home to a modern arena that can attract top concerts and events.

Even before the current downturn, the public had soured on direct financing for sports stadiums. Still, there could be creative ways to pay for an arena that isn't dependent on gambling profits. Once financing to replace the Coliseum is put in place, the county and the community will have more time to coldly assess the value of a casino at the Hub.

That's the challenge. Losing the Islanders, along with any hope of a vibrant entertainment destination, would most likely mean the vast asphalt wasteland now there would stay in place for decades to come. The game would be over, and Nassau County would be the loser.hN

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