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Winner’s Circle: Islanders win bid for ‘world-class arena’ at Belmont

To be updated throughout the day. So hold your horses.

149th Belmont Stakes Photo by Mike Stobe/Getty Images

The surprise was spoiled yesterday, but today the finish line was officially crossed. The New York Islanders have won the right to build an arena complex on the site of venerable horse racing institution Belmont Park.

From the official release by Empire State Development, New York’s economic development arm and courtesy of Jim Baumbach of Newsday:

After a thorough review and evaluation process, the Belmont Park Redevelopment Selection Committee has conditionally designated the New York Arena Partners (“NYAP”) to redevelop up to 43 acres of property owned by the Franchise Oversight Board (“FOB”) at Belmont Park, located at 2150 Hempstead Turnpike Elmont, NY 11003, on two parking lots identified as Site A and Site B (collectively, the “Sites”).

NYAP proposes to build a mixed-use entertainment complex that will include an approximately 60,000-square foot, 18,000-seat multi-use arena that will be home to the New York Islanders; a 435,000-square foot retail, dining and entertainment village; a 193,000-square foot hotel; and 10,000 square feet of offices and parking (see Proposed Site Plan attached). The proposed project and any contractual documentation remain subject to all public approval processes as required by law, including but not limited to review by the ESD Directors.

The release also divulges the multi-step selection and vetting process, the steps taken to involve community members and local elected officials and a schematic that most Islanders have have already committed to memory since the recent meeting in which the Islanders and NYCFC unveiled their places in front of dozens at Elmont Memorial High School. Some of you might want that ESD memo framed and hung on a wall.

Islanders Belmont arena plan via ESD
Empire State Development

A press conference was held today the Belmont site featuring Gov. Andrew Cuomo and Billy Joel, who just tends to show up at these events around the Island because he can.

Cuomo Joel Islanders

For you worriers out there, “subject to all public approval processes” sounds ominous, but today’s announcement is a major accomplishment. It’s still only the first step in the Islanders quest to have a stable, revenue-generating home of their own, but winning the Belmont bid represents their best chance at something that’s eluded them for almost half of the franchise’s lifespan.

How We Got Here: A Brief History

Completed in 1971, Nassau Veterans Memorial Coliseum served as the team’s home from their inception a year later until 2015. Never much of a looker or with an eye for the future, the old barn on Hempstead Turnpike was nonetheless accessible for fans driving in from around Long Island and the home to one of the most amazing sports teams ever assembled (they had kind of a Dynasty, ya know).

Little did we know that while his team was decimating the NHL, principle owner John Pickett signed a restrictive lease with Nassau County that would become an albatross for two decades. The inability to add luxury boxes or amenities would also come back to hurt.

As the years went on, it was clear the Islanders would need an upgrade sooner rather than later. Legendary GM Bill Torrey started banging the drums for a new arena in the early 90’s, when expansion teams were getting their own (for the time) state-of-the-art arenas. Pickett tried selling the team, but kept changing the asking price, warding off potential buyers. As the on-ice product got worse, so did the Coliseum - literally, in some cases - falling down around fans’ heads.

But with the lease tying them to the county and management firm SMG until the 21st century, subsequent owners found wiggling out of it impossible. Steve Gluckstern and the Milstein Brothers tried to strong arm Nassau into building a new arena, and were laughed out of the room. Con man John Spano never got a chance to buy a new arena on a bad check.

Charles Wang’s grand vision of a Lighthouse Project - a dense sprawl of retail, business and residential structures bordering a brand new arena - would have revitalized the entire area known as The Hub and given the team a modern home with the revenue streams it needs to survive. That’s where Nassau politics - a destructive force with more power than the Stay-Puft Marshmallow Man, The Blob and Godzilla combined - proved to be insurmountable. Both sides of the aisle took their turns in opposing or supporting the idea.

Hempstead town supervisor Kate Murray essentially blocked the project by stalling and then restricting new zoning boundaries of the area. By the time a public referendum came around, even the specter of a possible small hike in taxes was enough to swing the vote to, thanks but no thanks. A year later, Wang announced his team had signed an “iron-clad 25 year lease” with the brand new Barclays Center in Brooklyn.

A lot has and will be written about why the marriage between the Islanders and Barclays Center didn’t work out. Suffice it to say, the team needed a building when their lease with the Coliseum was up in 2015 and fans should be grateful that Barclays was there to let them crash on their (generally sloppy until recently) ice for a while. But the 30-mile trek to Brooklyn was a bridge too far for some, and the complaints got louder and louder each year whether they were warranted or not.

For their part, the business people at Barclays never seemed to quite understand what they were getting into or how to reach hockey fans the way they had basketball fans when the Nets set up shop in the borough. New goal horns and jerseys are small potatoes in the grand scheme of things, but adding them so quickly seemed to get everyone off on the wrong foot. Things seem smoother now, but that might be from each side giving the other more space, rather than coming closer together.

Perhaps the most interesting turn left will be to see how the Islanders and Barclays Center choose to finally part ways.

We’ll update this story throughout the day with more info. Today’s kind of an important one. I mean, geez, even crusty ol’ Brooksie is as giddy as a kid on Christmas.

News Conference Updates: One BILLION dollars...

During the press conference, they said it will be an investment of $1 billion by New York Arena Partners, creating 300,000 construction jobs, 31,000 permanent jobs. There are a lot of partners involved. And promises.

Let’s Talk about the Coliseum though...

Gov. Andrew Cuomo couldn’t resist making an appeal to get the Isles to play some games at the renovated-but-still-cramped Coliseum.

The owners of Barclays Center who also operate the Coliseum would like it to happen.

Did I Mention Politicians?

Finally, Ledecky Speaks

Jon Ledecky thanked everyone, from the governor and Empire Development to Charles Wang, Oak View Group’s Tim Lieweke, and Jeff Wilpon.

Pictures from the Gov

How Much, How Long?

If you thought the 25-year “ironclad” Brooklyn lease was funny, how about...49 YEARS? At annual total rent of $40 million.