Elected officials in Nassau County have struggled for years to create a development that includes a new arena and smart uses for the 77-acre property surrounding the aging Nassau Veterans Memorial Coliseum.
With the New York Islanders' announcement it is packing up its hockey sticks and pucks and leaving Uniondale in 2015, the field appears to have widened greatly on the possibilities for developing one of the last large parcels of prime real estate in the heart of Long Island.
"Focusing our attention primarily on a hockey arena was like planting a tree when we need a grove," said David Pennetta, president of the Commercial Industrial Brokers Society of Long Island. He insists that whatever plan is ultimately chosen for the property after the Islanders leave town "needs to address the multiple economic, housing, transportation and other issues that face Long Island today in a way that produces the greatest good for the greatest number."
As early as next week, Nassau County Executive Edward Mangano plans to announce the creation of an economic development team to determine a plan for the county-owned property, which Mangano calls "the Nassau County Hub."
Last year, Mangano backed a referendum — overwhelmingly rejected by voters — that would have allowed Nassau to borrow $400 million to build a new hockey arena for the Islanders. The proposal was pitched as possibly the last hope at keeping the hockey team from finding a new place to play.
The team's owner, Charles Wang, the founder of a computer software company, has tried for many years to get a new building for the hockey franchise. He offered a plan in 2003 for a privately funded multibillion-dollar development of housing, retail and a new arena on the property, but the proposal foundered amid community opposition. Wang also backed last year's failed referendum, but had made few statements since about the team's future.
Then he announced Wednesday that after the Islanders' lease expires in 2015, he will move the team to the newly opened Barclay's Arena in Brooklyn. "We came to the right conclusion," Wang said at a Brooklyn press conference. "We had many offers that we looked at, but our first priority was we wanted to stay in Nassau County and then in New York."
Desmond Ryan, the executive director of the Association for a Better Long Island, said he wasn't surprised by Wang's decision to move in light of last year's failed referendum.
"The county executive tried repeatedly to get Mr. Wang to become involved in the next phase — and those calls went unreturned," Ryan said in a statement. Ryan said the team's relocation "creates an enormous amount of freedom for the marketplace to dictate what will actually work at the hub site, creating jobs and investment."
There have been no formal estimates on what the 77-acre property could sell for, but Pennetta said other open parcels of property in the area have sold for between $1 million and $2 million an acre. He said because the town of Hempstead — which governs zoning of the coliseum property — has recently created regulations that allow for a broad range of possible development, the property could be even more valuable to a prospective developer.
Michael Watt, president of Long Island Inc. a consulting firm specializing in economic and community development issues, said there was great potential for the property, which basically consists of a huge parking lot surrounding the 40-year-old, 16,000-seat coliseum.
"If the powers-that-be work together it can become a vital, mixed use downtown-like focal point of offices, apartments, nightspots and recreation options," Watt said. "If they do not, then it continues to be a White Elephant epitomizing the political stagnation that plagues the region.