Gov. Andrew Cuomo took the wraps off one of Albany’s worst-kept secrets on Wednesday by awarding the $1 billion Belmont Park stadium deal to Arena Partners. The group, which is led by the New York Islanders hockey franchise, includes Oak View Group, a development company partially funded by Madison Square Garden, and Sterling Project Development, a real estate development firm run by the Wilpon family, owners of the New York Mets.
Neither Gov. Cuomo nor Howard Zemsky, CEO of Empire State Development Corp., which will oversee the development, gave a timetable to break ground on the project, described as the lynchpin in an ambitious regional development plan that includes third-rail upgrades to the Hicksville and Ronkonkoma lines of the Long Island Rail Road. The 3TC project is slated for completion by 2022, at an estimated cost of $2.6 billion, but the plan does not include the upgrades to the Belmont Park station, about which details and cost estimates are yet to be announced.
Despite the large number of state and local officials at Wednesday’s news conference, Assemblywoman Michaelle Solages (D-Elmont) and County Legislator Carriė Solages (D-3rd District), whose Elmont districts will likely feel the greatest impact from the development, were conspicuous by their absence.
“I’ve consistently opposed this project,” the assemblywoman said. “I was invited, but I could not attend in good conscience and give it even the appearance of my support. I do not believe the mantra, ‘If you build it, they will come,’ and I do not believe the numbers we are being shown. We still have so many unanswered questions that it is irresponsible to move forward with this project or give it our support until we have more clarity.”
The fate of the Islanders’ former home tops her list of concerns. Nassau Coliseum “was renovated at huge taxpayer expense,” she said of the $165 million, two-year makeover. “And a lot of the reasons given for that renovation are the same ones being given now for why we need a completely new stadium.”
A new arena less than 15 miles away “will cannibalize any business the Coliseum might hope to get,” she said, while the Coliseum itself will compete for some of the same events as the new facility. She added that the impact on local businesses, including small business owners, had not been adequately studied in light of the amount of new retail space being added. “Those new businesses will most likely be chain stores and franchises,” she said. “I’m not convinced our community can sustain that level of new construction without putting existing stores out of business. We want to see real numbers and sustainable growth.”
A number of state and local officials attended the press event, including Senate Majority Leader John Flanagan, Sen. Todd Kaminsky (D-Long Beach) and Sen. Elaine Phillips (R-Flower Hill). Outgoing Nassau County Executive Ed Mangano and Executive-elect Laura Curran also attended, along with NHL Commissioner Gary Bettman and Long Island Federation of Labor President John Durso. Veteran entertainer and Long Island booster Billy Joel was also on the dais.
Solages was not the only one expressing reservations. “It is critical that the state ensures that the Elmont community has a seat at the table and shares in the project's success," Kaminsky cautioned.
Despite the celebratory nature of the event, many in the local community have been critical of the plan since it was first proposed 12 years ago. Concern centers around the way the development will be carried out; the extent to which Elmont will actually benefit financially and in terms of job creation; and the amount of oversight the community will be able to exercise. These concerns have been exacerbated by the speed with which Empire State proceeded from the Request for Proposals, announced in mid-September, to awarding the project. The RFP called for close cooperation between developers and community leaders.
Opponents in the community have said they will likely seek relief from the courts. The Parkhurst Civic Association, which represents some 900 households in the Belmont Park area, sent a letter on Dec. 18 to Empire State President Zemsky alleging the corporation violated its charter by failing to hold any community advisory meetings. The Urban Development Corporation Act requires such meetings before proceeding with any new development. Failure to do so could open Empire State to legal action under Article 78 of the act.
“We’ve been here before,” said Elmont activist Tammie Williams when asked about the Islanders announcement. “This has been going on for more than a decade, and we’ve always managed to stop it. We do want to see development that’s good for the community, but we want a say in deciding what that is, not something that’s imposed on us for someone else’s benefit.”