Applause broke out at Elmont Memorial High School on Sunday as the two finalists for the development of Belmont Park announced plans to create thousands of temporary and permanent jobs as part of ambitious plans to develop the racing center further.
It was the first time that the New York Islanders or the New York City Football Club soccer team detailed concrete proposals, and their job-creation plans appeared to allay some of the concerns of many in the audience that the needs of the Elmont community would not be taken seriously.
The event, which was billed as a “listening session,” was sponsored by five local elected officials. Each side was given 15 minutes to outline its proposal for the 43-acre footprint, after which written questions were taken from the audience of about 150.
Speaking for the Islanders, Richard Browne, of Sterling Project Development, said the team would recruit “5,500 temporary construction workers and 2,000 permanent, full-time, year-round employees” at Belmont. While he was unable to guarantee that construction jobs would be filled by workers from surrounding communities, Browne did praise the “quality local workforce.”
NYCFC expects to hire 4,400 temporary workers and “1,600 direct and indirect hires” for positions in retail and the stadium itself, according to Senior Vice President Avi Kollencher, of Related Companies, which is partnering on the project with NYCFC.
The club’s proposal for the site includes a 26,000-seat, open-air arena north of Hempstead Turnpike. South of the road, the team proposes to build a 435,000-square-foot retail village, a 5.2-acre public park and a two-acre soccer facility, which would be available for youth training programs.
The Islanders version includes an 18,000-seat, all-weather stadium, a 10,000-square-foot “innovation center,” 400,000 square feet of retail space and a 200- to 250-bed hotel. The stadium would be built north of Hempstead, while the area south of the turnpike would be dedicated primarily to the 7,000 additional parking spots the facility would require.
Both the Islanders and NYCFC representatives insisted that their proposals would require reopening the Long Island Rail Road’s Belmont Park Station on a permanent basis, ideally with a Park and Ride connection. The station is not located in Nassau County, however, according to Jeffrey Greenfield, chairman of the county’s Planning Commission. That, he said, would add one more hurdle to any possible negotiations with the Metropolitan Transportation Authority, of which the LIRR is part.
Access roads and parkways, including Hempstead Turnpike and the Cross Island and Southern State parkways, would need beefing up as well, both sides agreed. Asked whether construction would entail invoking eminent domain, both the Islanders and NYCFC insisted that it would be unnecessary.
Despite their willingness to discuss jobs, roads and shops, the core issue itself remained unaddressed: Does Nassau County need a second sports and entertainment stadium?
Islanders owner Jonathon Ledecky has said on a number of occasions that Belmont Park is his team’s only option. “There is no Plan B,” he told the Herald earlier this year. The team’s contract with its current home, the Barclay’s Center in Brooklyn, will expire at the end of next year’s season, and the Islanders have had continuing issues with the complex, including a lack of luxury boxes. Nevertheless, both the team and the National Hockey League that insist a return to the Coliseum, which was the Islanders’ home through the 2015 season, is out of the question.
The Coliseum recently underwent a $150 million renovation, partly as a result of the Islanders’ dissatisfaction with the venue, and the facility’s management insists it is still “ready to do whatever it will take” to entice the four-time Stanley Cup champions back, according to a person close to the discussions. The team has the lowest average attendance in the league — 11,685 spectators per game in 2016-17, according to ESPN. It is difficult to see where the additional 6,300 fans per game envisioned by the new stadium’s backers would come from.
A number of audience members interviewed on Sunday said that a new hockey arena would be superfluous. “The Coliseum is the home of the Islanders,” said lifelong Elmont resident and passionate Islanders fan Lori Halop, expressing a sentiment shared by legislators in both Nassau and Suffolk counties. Still others showed vocal support for bringing the Islanders to Belmont, with both their words and their homemade signs.
Unlike the Islanders, NYCFC, which currently plays at Yankee Stadium, has explored a number of options in addition to the Elmont complex. “We’ve been looking for a soccer stadium for four years now,” said Jon Stemp, the club’s infrastructure officer.
Scheduling problems and issues with the conversion of a baseball field to a soccer pitch have meant that the site was always less than ideal, according to team sources. Possible venues are said to include a property at the Harlem River Yards in the Motts Haven section of the Bronx currently owned by Empire State Development Corp., and two sites in the Willets Point section of Queens. The Yankees own 20 percent of the NYCF, and the remaining stake is held by Manchester City F.C., the renowned English Premier League soccer club, which is owned in turn by City Football Group, a subsidiary of Abu Dhabi United Group.
Conspicuously missing from the presentation and the follow-up discussion was any talk of cost. Estimates for the development have run as high as $2 billion for the stadium and ancillary facilities, according to one person close to the discussions. The Mets’ Citi Field came in at roughly $800 million, while the new Yankee Stadium complex, inaugurated 10 years ago, cost more than $2 billion.
State Sen. Todd Kaminsky (D-Long Beach) said he sees “no need for any public money” in funding a Belmont project. Nevertheless, both Citi Field and Yankee Stadium required substantial public financing in the form of stadium bonds. Citi Field needed more than $600 million in public-backed bonds, while Yankee Stadium required $1.2 billion. Repayment of the stadium bonds is the responsibility of the teams themselves, but in the event of a default, they are guaranteed by the full faith and credit of New York City — that is, by taxpayers.