One of the most valuable pieces of land in Nassau County is the Nassau Coliseum and its surrounding acreage. Since the doors of the arena opened in 1972, the site has had one mishap after another. Someday a local historian will write a book about how, year after year, elected officials at the town and county levels have missed all kinds of opportunities to develop those 77 acres into a job-creating and tax revenue-producing venue.
The Coliseum itself is a hard-luck building. It has been the home of the New York Islanders, Nets, Sets, Arrows, Express and Saints. At the same time that the building was a sleepy and often dark venue, the surrounding land became a bonanza for some elected officials, who approved various sweetheart leases for portions of the property.
The first sign of real hope for change was in 2007, when then Islanders owner Charles Wang proposed the Lighthouse project, an ambitious effort to make the acreage into a destination for entertainment and housing. Wang’s idea was a little too aggressive, and the negotiations between him and county officials broke down. It was also no secret that the Town of Hempstead wasn’t enthusiastic, either, because more housing might mean more city voters coming to the site.
As part of the Lighthouse proposal, a new arena would have been built that would have become the Islanders’ permanent home. When the deal fell through and without the arena, Wang had to decide where he could improve revenue, and he made a deal with Barclays Center in Brooklyn. Meanwhile, desperate to bring the team back to Nassau, County Executive Ed Mangano proposed a countywide referendum to approve a bond issue to pay for a new arena. The vote was held in the middle of the summer of 2013, and the proposal went down to a major defeat.
With no hockey team in Uniondale and a dark building, the county pushed for a new plan, under which the Coliseum would be either rebuilt or torn down to make way for a new structure. Bruce Ratner, a respected developer, won the right to renovate the arena, manage it and develop the surrounding property. As part of that plan, its occupancy was reduced to 13,000 from 18,000, which meant that no National Hockey League team would be allowed to play there.
After Ratner got involved, it was anticipated that the rest of the valuable site would be developed into a destination location, with all types of entertainment. But Ratner had a dispute with his partner, Edward Blumenfeld, another prominent developer, and the project sat dormant for two years while the two sides battled over their differences.
The county is now seeking proposals over the next 45 days. County officials claim that there are other potential builders who should be given a chance to participate, but unless there’s some mystery developer waiting in the wings, no one knows who will come up with a new plan to make the most of all the available acreage.
The other problem the county faces is that the state had allocated over $80 million for the construction of parking garages, a very generous grant for any development. But the construction of a bunch of retail stores doesn’t meet the state’s criteria for the site, so it is possible that without a comprehensive plan to attract businesses that pay higher wages, the state money will disappear.
There have been so many proposals made for the development of the Coliseum real estate that they could fill a 100-pound volume. One of the most recent ones was for a biotech center. That sounded glamorous, but the biotech industry never came forward with any proposal. Cornell University has recently completed a multi-billion-dollar facility in Manhattan, and there’s little chance that Big Biotech is coming to Long Island.
So what’s next for the Coliseum site? Maybe by some stroke of luck, new and different plans will be submitted for the development of the property, and the legacy of broken promises will end. Perhaps the county will give Blumenfeld a fair chance to carry out his vision for the land. But something has to happen, and it has to be soon.
I’m not a cynic by nature, but if the only new proposals we see are submitted by some generous contributors to politicians, then we’ll be back in the same situation we had in the 1970s. The county desperately needs an economic shot in the arm at the so-called Hub property. All of us want it to happen soon — and for it to be done honestly.
Jerry Kremer was a state assemblyman for 23 years, and chaired the Assembly’s Ways and Means Committee for 12 years. He now heads Empire Government Strategies, a business development and legislative strategy firm. Comments about this column? JKremer@liherald.com.