The political machine in Nassau County has never really cared about the New York Islanders, at least as a hockey franchise. No, the team is a means to an end. What the politicians really care about is the 70 acres of prime real estate that the Islanders and their arena sit on. But ever since the Nassau County government took over the land from a closing Air Force base in 1961, every attempt to develop the land has died on the vine via some political snafu.
Attempts to turn the area into a multi-purpose attraction have been going on since 1968, when then-County Exec Eugene Nickerson proposed a 14,000 arena along with mixed housing, bars, restaurants and a library for JFK. But the proposal was strung along by the Town of Hempstead and by the time Nickerson was voted out, the town had only approved the arena. The man who defeated the Democrat Nickerson was Republican Ralph Caso, the town supervisor of Hempstead.
Caso did away with the original plans, removed the developers that Nickerson had and brought on his own developers to just build the arena. The Nassau Coliseum opened for business in 1972, albeit barely finished enough to hold events. The arena and surrounding area have staying the same since, outdated since the late eighties.
In the mid-90’s, the Nassau GOP came up with a redevelopment offer as bait to finally get a buyer for an Islander team that had been on the block for years. In late 1997, a group called New York Sports Venture (NYSV) bought the Islanders for $195 million. In an interview with a local paper, co-owner Howard Milstein stated that the proposal was a “key factor” in his group decision to buy the team.
What Milstein and his partners didn’t anticipate was the intractable situation of the Nassau Coliseum lease deal and Nassau politics in general. When Milstein unveiled his proposal to county officials which included a convention center, office buildings, shops, restaurants and parking, they balked at the size of the project. A second, scaled down project was also nixed.
And then there was the lease. Yes, lease. The Islanders do not own the Nassau Coliseum, they are tenants. In 1985 then owner John Pickett and Nassau County (with input from then US Senator and former Hempstead supervisor Alphonse D’Amato) arranged terms with building managing company Hyatt (now SMG) for a 30-year lease. The lease was extremely lopsided, giving the Islanders none of the parking and concession revenues and only a third of the advertising. With the Isles still a top draw, Pickett erroneously figured that the cable money they were getting from Cablevision and the revenues from luxury boxes would suffice. Nope. Not even close. It’s been an albatross on the Islanders balance sheet ever since.
Milstein and the group made it clear that no redevelopment could take place with SMG still holding the lease. They wanted full ownership of the new arena and the development around it. NYSV offered to buy SMG out and was refused. And Nassau County, spooked by the development plans, backed SMG. Milstein then publicly embarrassed the county and SMG by trying to create a loophole to nix the lease deal via claiming the Coliseum was unsound. All sides finally got back to the table but the talks fell apart. Nothing got done.
And who suffered the most from this? The Islanders and their fans. An angry Milstein slashed payroll and the team along with the attendance bottomed out. With the Nassau Hub deal at an impasse, NYSV lost $40 million in the two years it owned the Islanders and put the team back on the block.
After a brief purchase by an owner who turned out to be a con-artist, the latest beleaguered owner to push the boulder up the hill ala Sisyphus is Charles Wang, CEO of Computer Associates. Wang was hesitant about buying the Islanders and knew next to nothing about hockey. But a friend convinced him with overtures about value of the land and a promise of a new arena if he bought the team. The friend was a lawyer for SMG who sat on the board of Computer Associates, former Hempstead town supervisor and former US senator Alphonse D’Amato.
So Wang bought the team in 2000. Poor bastard had no idea what he was getting into. Newsday reported about a lunch Wang had with Al D’Amato and his brother Arnaud (an ex-convict), where he was asked by D’Amato to let Arnaud into his development board. Wang refused, saying that he didn’t want politics involved. Silly rabbit, politics is always involved. And Wang was about to find out.
When Wang met with the county, he was told to get creative with the scope and financing of his proposal as Nassau was broke. When Wang unveiled his privately financed $3.8 billion Lighthouse Project in 2004 to county officials which included a 60-floor residential complex, office buildings, shops, restaurants and parking, they balked at the size of the project (sound familiar?). A small yet vocal minority of residents protested the plan. Jilted friend D’Amato bashed the project. The town of Hempstead offered a counter-proposal that slashed the plan by 70% which Wang trashed as economically unviable. And on it dragged.
The proposal morphed into having a casino as part of the complex. A casino, the type of project only a politician could love. A typical quick fix, quick buck idea that does squat for the economic quality and life quality of a community in the long run. Just visit Detroit or Atlantic City to see the impact casinos have.
It had its supporters. A Long Island Herald op-ed piece, A Casino Deserves Serious Consideration, was written in the Long Island Herald in early May 2010 supporting County Executive Ed Mangano’s casino idea. The author? Former Hempstead supervisor, former US Senator, Mangano fundraiser and friend, current SMG lawyer and the Chairman of the Pokers Players Alliance (PPA), the Honorable Alphonse D’Amato. (Kudos to the crackerjack editorial staff of the LI Herald for failing to mention “Senator Pothole’s” involvement with Mangano or SMG or the PPA or his history of popping up like a Whack-A-Mole to screw the Islanders for his gain.)
All of this nonsense has led to the Islanders on life support.
When it comes to hockey, I’m not a New York Islander fan. My allegiance lies with the Philadelphia Flyers. Which I admit is strange considering I’m from Long Island, raised in Northport. I grew up during the Islanders four straight Stanley Cups, when they ruled the area. I waved hello to defenseman Ken Morrow on the way back from school as he was mowing his lawn. Former enforcer Ken Baumgartner once joined my friends and I during a street hockey game. My family, friends and I have been to many games at the Nassau “Mausoleum”. The Islanders are part of being a Long Islander.
No, they’re not my favorite team. But they mean something to me, as a Long Islander and a hockey fan. So I empathize with the people I know, who truly love hockey and the Islanders and what they’ve gone through. I can’t imagine it though, helplessly watching your team bleed cash in a dated money pit sitting in a field of unused asphalt year after year. Terrified, perhaps resigned to the team eventually leaving for Queens or Brooklyn or Kansas Freaking City. All at the mercy of political and moneyed interests that treated the team and the area like a political football. It must’ve been a nightmare.
That nightmare looks to be ending this Monday, August 1st, in a special referendum vote for Nassau County to approve a new arena complex (also including what I guess is a direly needed minor league baseball stadium) to the tune of $430 million. All of it publically funded of course.
As opposed to the Lighthouse project and others that have come before it, this latest proposal has the whole-hearted backing of the Nassau County government, wouldn’t you know. This is the same political machine that has whole-heartedly backed Nassau County into bankruptcy. Nassau County is the highest taxed, wealthiest county in the nation. And it’s broke. It’s so bad that a state oversight committee, the Nassau Interim Finance Authority (NIFA), was specifically brought on to take the credit card away from the county politicians. And despite all of that, the county is pushing another expensive public finance of a private business.
There are websites that have bothered to read the county’s proposal including Neil deMause’s Field of Schemes and Forbes. So I won’t rehash, just read them. To summarize, Nassau County will make $2 million a year at best, at worst lose $12 million a year. Imagine if you were an investor and someone came to you with an opportunity to invest 100% ($430 million) into a project for only an 11.5% cut of the revenue, with the potential gain and loss numbers above? Would you punch them in the face or the balls?
Yet that’s what Ed Mangano and the political machine is about to have the county agree to. And after years of torching various development projects, NOW the county wants a fancy arena complex and they’re pulling out all the stops that were absent for previous arena incarnations. They’ve flooded press conferences with union labor supporters. Various op-ed pieces lauding the project, promising loads of revenue like every other publically financed project have showed in most local newspapers. There’s even an accusation that Mangano used his government office to have people make pro-arena phone calls to residents. For the record, that’s not legal.
Then there’s the August 1st vote date which stinks to high heaven. Instead of putting the vote as part of the line of referendums that voters get to cast a ballot on in November, Nassau voters are asked to come out on a dog day summer weekday to vote on this one referendum. It’s a shady yet effective ploy. The ones with something to gain from the project (i.e. union labor) will make a point to go. As for the put-upon Nassau County taxpayers, they’re faced with the offer that if they don’t agree to bankroll this whole thing, the Islanders are gone. How shitty is that?
The referendum will pass, even though the county is broke. Even though the Nassau Interim Finance Authority (NIFA) has already red flagged the project as the type of “investments” that have gotten Nassau into the mess it’s in now. This is how it goes now. It’s shady and sad. It’s not right.
My long-suffering Islander friends (especially the ones not in Nassau County) may or may not feel this way but they won’t care. They desperately want this to pass. I don’t blame them. You know the saying, “Don’t tell me how you killed the cow, just bring the steak”?
Well, gimme a round of T-Bones medium rare for my Islander friends and I.