Charles Wang, whose 16-year tenure as majority owner of the Islanders ends Friday, says he is satisfied with the team’s direction but remains disappointed with Nassau politicians who could not help him build a new arena to keep the team on Long Island.
“I think it’s time [to step aside],” Wang said in an interview on Wednesday at the team’s practice facility in Eisenhower Park. “I’ve done everything I think I wanted to do. I put the franchise in good hands. Those guys [new majority owners Jonathan Ledecky and Scott Malkin] are good guys. Let them have their run.
“And it’s going to be in New York, which was a big fear, obviously. We’ve set everything up the last two years. I wanted to end the era in Nassau and start the era in Brooklyn. I got that done.”
Wang expressed disappointment with the Town of Hempstead, which backed a zoning plan that reduced the density of Wang’s $3.8-billion Lighthouse Project, and Nassau County executives Thomas Suozzi and Edward Mangano, who were unable to help Wang realize his goal.
“But we elect them,” Wang said. “At the end of the day, we vote for them, we make them our leaders and we put them in charge. The disappointment with what they did politically to the Coliseum, it’s shameful. Who’s going to be held accountable?
“[Former Hempstead Town Supervisor] Kate Murray was held accountable, but is Suozzi being held accountable? He didn’t push at the end. Mangano, too — they were always more worried about whether it was Republicans or Democrats who were going to control the thing, because that’s the source of whatever it is they were looking for. They never stopped and said, ‘What’s best for the people, because they elected me.’ And that is so sad.”
Brian Nevin, a spokesman for Mangano, said, “Two administrations of opposite parties tried to keep the Islanders here. Unfortunately, a referendum to do just that was voted down by residents. Fortunately, the Coliseum is being rebuilt at no cost to taxpayers and holds much promise for future sports.”
Suozzi declined to comment. Murray did not respond to requests for comment.
Lighthouse project fails
Wang, a billionaire founder of Computer Associates, a software company once based on Long Island but now known as CA and headquartered in Manhattan, bought the Islanders in 2000 after a tumultuous decade of team ownership. Wang sought to build a new arena at the Coliseum site since 2003.
Wang appealed to then-Nassau County Executive Suozzi for public funding to upgrade the arena, but Suozzi said the county could not afford the project. Suozzi lost to Mangano in 2009 and failed in a comeback bid in 2013. On Tuesday, he won the Democratic primary in the Third Congressional District.
In 2004, Wang unveiled the Lighthouse Project to redevelop the 77-acre Coliseum site. The plan called for a new arena, a minor-league baseball stadium, restaurants and retail space and a 60-story tower that would resemble a lighthouse. But Town of Hempstead elected officials called the project too dense and cited concerns about traffic congestion.
“The Lighthouse project was too big,” then-Hempstead Town Supervisor Murray said in a 2013 Newsday interview. “It didn’t fit with roadway infrastructure, and other systems wouldn’t have been able to support it.”
In 2010, Murray announced an “alternate” town zoning plan, which essentially cut the density of Wang’s Lighthouse proposal by half. Wang and Mangano, a Republican, released a joint statement calling Hempstead’s plan “economically unviable.”
Murray unsuccessfully ran for Nassau County district attorney in November after serving as supervisor for 12 years. She is general counsel/governmental affairs at Nassau Community College.
In May 2011, Mangano called for a referendum for Nassau voters to decide on a proposed $400-million taxpayer-funded revitalization plan that called for a new arena, a minor-league baseball park and convention space at the Coliseum site.
Nassau voters rejected the plan in August 2011, with 57 percent voting against borrowing for the project through a general obligation bond.
Move to Brooklyn
In October 2012, frustrated by the delays and setbacks, Wang announced he would relocate the Islanders to Brooklyn’s Barclays Center when the team’s lease at the Coliseum expired in 2015. In August 2014, Wang announced he was selling a minority stake in the team to Ledecky and Malkin, who would assume majority control after two years.
NHL commissioner Gary Bettman praised Wang last week for his efforts to keep the team on Long Island.
“I know he put his heart and soul into that franchise trying to make it work in Nassau County,” Bettman said.
Wang said he is happy with the way Barclays Center CEO Brett Yormark has responded to concerns raised during the Islanders’ first season in Brooklyn.
“At the end of the first year there, I think everybody grew up,” Wang said. “We’re not the Nets . . . We didn’t know what a really big arena, run properly, that it can be such a motivator for the fans. As Islanders, having lived in the Coliseum for so long, it was a shock to us.
“The people had mixed views,” he said. “They hated the train ride but they loved the place. They think it’s too expensive. So you always have that mix. You look at playoff pricing — everybody said, ‘You can’t raise the prices for the playoffs.’ You have to; you’re crazy if you don’t. They did raise it. We had a $2-million gate! You know what that means to a team that usually does $450,000?”
During Wang’s tenure, the team made the playoffs seven times, winning only one playoff series. Wang will retain 15 percent of the team, but at age 71, he’s happy now to let go.
“I’m not going to keep an eye on it because it’s not mine,” he said. “It’s somebody else’s now. When I turned it over, yes, I wanted to stay a part of it. But now I don’t run the show.
“They paid dearly for the opportunity to screw it up their own way — and they will, I’m sure,” Wang said jokingly.
“That’s how it goes, up and down. If you think it goes up all the time, you’re drinking something. Without the downs, you don’t know about the ups.”
With Robert Brodsky
and Laura Figueroa