By GREGORY ZELLER //
The Islanders are coming home.
With eighth-wonder-of-the-world fanfare, Gov. Andrew Cuomo announced the 10th proposal of his 2018 State of the State agenda Wednesday: bringing home Long Island’s once-and-future National Hockey League franchise.
The Islanders – who played their last game in the old Nassau Coliseum on April 25, 2015, before relocating to Brooklyn’s Barclays Center – are returning to Nassau County, with Cuomo et al announcing that the team’s $1 billion proposal, including a new NHL arena, is the winning bid for the coveted Belmont Park redevelopment project.
Cuomo unwrapped the early Christmas gift at Belmont Park in a raucous, applause-filled, SRO press conference featuring an all-star lineup of principals, including NHL Commissioner Gary Bettman, Islanders majority owner Jon Ledecky, team captain John Tavares and legendary rocker Billy Joel, who actually became a political bargaining chip of sorts as the event rolled on.
In addition to a new 18,000-seat, year-round arena that will be home ice for the Islanders and more than 100 other annual events, the winning plan includes 435,000 square feet of retail-space development, a 200- to 250-room hotel and a 10,000-square-foot “innovation center” with offices and other amenities.
Empire State Development Corp. President and CEO Howard Zemsky, in attendance at Wednesday’s press event, also announced that the Metropolitan Transit Authority would increase its Long Island Rail Road service to the Belmont Park station as the redevelopment effort proceeds.
The winning proposal topped two other responses to ESD’s July Request for Proposals to redevelop some 42 acres of unused parking lots and other fallow space outside the Elmont race track, including a proposal by New York City FC, a Major League Soccer franchise partially owned by the New York Yankees. The soccer team pitched a 26,000-seat, open-air stadium, plus 400,000 square feet of retail space and a community park, among other perks.
The winning proposal also boasts links to other regional major-league sports teams and venues. New York Arena Partners LLC, the consortium behind the bid, includes the Islanders, Great Neck-based Sterling Project Development Group – a real estate firm run by the Wilpon family, owners of the New York Mets – and Oak View Group, a California-based arena-development venture firm partially funded by The Madison Square Garden Co., which owns both the NHL rival New York Rangers and the National Basketball Association’s New York Knicks, as well as the WNBA’s New York Liberty.
Cuomo lauded the consortium’s $1 billion investment in the Elmont redevelopment project, which will not only “create thousands of jobs” – including thousands of construction jobs and 3,100 permanent positions, by ESD’s estimates – but rights something of a cultural wrong, according to the governor.
“To me, today is personal,” Cuomo told the audience of Islanders fans packing Wednesday’s press conference. “I grew up in eastern Queens and I spent a lot of time on Long Island, when Roosevelt Field was just opening. Jones Beach in the summer and Nassau Coliseum, that’s where you went for a concert.
“When [the Islanders] left and went to Brooklyn, Long Island lost something,” he added. “They were so much a part of the culture and identity of Long Island.
“When the Islanders left, they left a hole in the heart of Long Island.”
Their return is part of a “win, win, win” scenario, the governor noted, with a shiny new NHL facility merely part of New York Arena Partners’ winning strategy.
“This is a big win for the community,” Cuomo said. “This is a big economic-development initiative that will utilize a great asset that has been underutilized for years.”
Ledecky, who called the announcement “a huge day for this franchise,” agreed that “this will be more than an arena … this site will be the home of economic development.”
“We’re coming back because Long Island is coming back,” the Islanders’ majority owner added. “We will make every effort to contribute to the success of Belmont Park and the Elmont community.”
Zemsky, who invoked the legendry racehorse Secretariat and other nuggets from Belmont Park’s 112-year history, agreed the dozens of acres of unused parking lots and other spaces in the redevelopment zone represent “untapped” economic potential.
The New York Arena Partners plan met all the criteria of Albany’s RFP, the economic-development czar added, including calls to maximize economic and community benefits, create jobs, prioritize Minority and Women-Owned Business Enterprise subcontracts and incorporate “green” construction standards.
All three proposals were “evaluated under the highest possible standards and criteria,” Zemsky added, “as thorough and professional as it gets.”
Cuomo and Bettman played a game of one-upmanship during the press event, with the governor “appealing to the commissioner” to allow the Islanders to play some home games at the new Nassau Coliseum while their new home rink is constructed.
With only a 13,000-seat capacity for ice hockey, the new Nassau Coliseum doesn’t meet NHL requirements, requiring special dispensation for a team to play there. Cuomo asked Bettman for exactly that, from the podium, to a chorus of loud cheers.
“I don’t want to give you any pressure, commissioner,” the governor noted.
Bettman took to the podium and suggested he’d consider it – but only if Long Island’s Piano Man agreed to open the yet-to-be-named Belmont Park arena. Joel, gifted an Islanders jersey during the conference, did not immediately respond.
And while Cuomo shared his warm memories of the old Nassau Veterans Memorial Coliseum, Bettman offered a colder assessment of the Islanders’ former home – and even the team’s current Brooklyn digs.
“The is the first time in the Islanders’ history that they’ve been in a world-class facility,” the NHL commissioner said of the Belmont Park plan. “This world-class arena will be great for Islanders fans, it will be great for concerts, it will be great for tourism.
“It will be an economic engine,” Bettman added.