Nassau County voters kill Islanders arena plan

The votes are in — 62 percent of them, anyway, as of around midnight — and it looks like the New York Islanders‘ $400 million arena plan has gone down to a decisive defeat. With about 15% of registered Nassau County voters turning out at the polls, 58% of those voting opposed the plan to hike property taxes by as much as 4% to pay for the new building.

What happens now is anyone’s guess. Islanders owner Charles Wang has said he’d move the team if the arena vote failed, but owners have said that before (cf. Carl Pohlad after the Twins referendum lost in 1996), and his list of relocation options isn’t all that great. Kansas City isn’t going to offer a sweetheart lease to a sports team and neither is Quebec, Hamilton has that Balsillie problem, which leaves … Houston? It’s tough to see abandoning the nation’s largest market, with a proven hockey fan base, for a Sunbelt city that hasn’t had a major-league hockey team in 33 years, especially after all that mess in Phoenix. There’s always that talk of a hockey arena in Queens, but that has nothing in the way of a funding plan, and would give New York buy genuine lorazepam City three arenas competing for concerts (and the metro area six arenas, at least until the Meadowlands and the Nassau Coliseum were torn down), which is a heck of a lot, even for an urban area with 20 million people.

After the vote, Wang said only: “I have to tell you I’m disappointed and to put it very bluntly, I’m heartbroken. I have to tell you it’s a very emotional day for us.” He added: “We’re committed to the Nassau Coliseum until 2015. We will honor our lease.”

Before the vote yesterday, Wang had been more defiant, proclaiming, “We don’t have a place to play anymore, because come 2015, our lease expires. … We have to have a place to play, so we’re out of options basically.” Given that the last time anybody tried that gambit was seven years ago, and everyone just laughed at them — as anyone who’s rented an apartment knows, the thing about leases is after one expires you typically get another one — Wang isn’t exactly sounding like a man with a solid Plan B. It’s going to be very interesting to see what his next move is, once he gets over his heartbreak.


42 comments on “Nassau County voters kill Islanders arena plan

  1. Has anyone explored putting a team back in Atlanta? After all they weren’t all that bad support wise the last time around. Their problems stemmed more from REALLY crappy ownership.

  2. $350-400 million for an arena is just absurdly unnecessary – especially when there’s no need for land acquisition or major transportation infrastructure upgrades (as with new arenas).

    Since 1990, the 40 arenas that have been constructed for NHL or NBA use (or both) have only averaged out to a cost of $258 million (all costs adjusted to 2011 dollars). And that’s the average – which includes some very nice dual-tenant arenas (avg. cost = $330 million) that skew the numbers. In the NHL, the 15 arenas that have been built and aren’t shared with NBA tenants, the average arena cost is $219.5 million – and there are some very nice arenas in that range (Jobing.com Arena = $215 million; Xcel Energy Center = $166 million).

  3. This is all sort of irrelevant now, but anyway…

    –An average cost figure that goes back 20 years takes into account arenas built 15, 16 years ago. It’s a worthless number.

    –The $350 million included a minor league baseball park, which was going to be $50 million.

    –Before anybody dismisses Wang’s raising of the possibility of them moving (e.g., “we’ve heard that before”) you are required to come to the Coliseum and just see how awful things are there. One of these days, there’s going to be a serious accident at the place. The seats are literally falling apart, there’s leaks all over the place. It’s the worst arena in all of sports. Whatever is second worst would still be miles ahead of the Coliseum.

  4. This is all sort of irrelevant now, but anyway…

    –An average cost figure that goes back 20 years takes into account arenas built 15, 16 years ago. It’s a worthless number.

    –The $350 million included a minor league baseball park, which was going to be $50 million.

    –Before anybody dismisses Wang’s raising of the possibility of them moving (e.g., “we’ve heard that before”) you are required to come to the Coliseum and just see how awful things are there. One of these days, there’s going to be a serious accident at the place. The seats are literally falling apart, there’s leaks all over the place. It’s the worst arena in all of sports. Whatever is second worst would still be miles ahead of the Coliseum.

  5. And new buildings never fall apart. Oh wait:

    www.stltoday.com/sports/baseball/professional/article_e161f02a-ffc8-57c1-8561-40613edc3593.html

    More seriously, I don’t think anyone expects the Islanders would remain long-term (whatever that means) at an unimproved Nassau Coliseum. That said, there are other local options: Come up with yet another plan for a new arena, or do a rehab of the Coliseum. While neither may sound all that likely right now, with the relocation options iffy as well, staying put may have its attractions. And there’s a lot of time left before 2015 — and as we’ve seen before, leases are made to be extended.

    Question, John K (or anyone): Have Nassau’s building inspectors done a report on the Coliseum anytime recently? Because there’s a big difference between broken seats, which can be replaced fairly cheaply, and a broken building.

  6. Wow, John – way to completely ignore the fact that I noted all numbers were adjusted to 2011 dollars. And to pretend that a 20-yr. avg. implies figures are manipulated because it “takes into account arenas built 15, 16 years ago.”

    Also, I was under the impression that the arena was to cost $350 million and the ballpark $50 million (hence, $400 million). And I hate to tell you, but that’s still way too high. Jobing.com Arena, which is only 8 years old and is a nice facility cost $180 million in 2003 – which is adjusted to $215 million in 2011 dollars. Likewise, the Excel Energy Center, which opened in 2000, cost only $166 million in 2011 dollars.

    Just because you buy hook-line-and-sinker into the idea that billionaires deserve ridiculously nice playpens for their hobbies, it doesn’t make it so. Arenas don’t need to cost $350 million to be nice.

  7. A possible solution would be for Wang to refurbish the arena on his dime. Nassau County could give him tax breaks, all parking revenue, ect, ect.

    During the renovation Wang could move the team to Barcleys in Brooklyn.

    A new arena in Queens is not reasonable. As stated earlier NYC Metro Area has too many venues (5) for the available events (concerts, circus, boxing, ice shows, college basketball).

    The Islanders will not leave NY area any time soon. They will never get the $15 million in annual TV revenue in KC, Quebec, Houston or Atlanta.

    The only options for Wang are:

    1) Spend his own money on a refurbished arena
    2) Move to Brooklyn
    3) Sell the team

  8. This is a double-barrel defeat for the Icelanders, the Nassau County Republican machine and (Cablevision-owned) Newsday.

    Politically, the arena was not going to fly. Nassau County sold this as a jobs plan but Nassau County homeowners pay the highest property taxes in the country — and those who can afford to flee the Island are doing so.

    Professionally, you may see the Icelanders head for Quebec City or Kansas City. Brooklyn is out because it’s on the Rangers’ doorstep. Houston is out because it’s 30% Latino and the TV ratings there for the NHL are very small.

  9. Within the last few days, there have been reports in the news (that I can’t fine) that the Barclays Center (Brooklyn) people have said that they building could host hockey.

    I thought that they went out of their way to make it a “basketball” venue with a floor that was too small for hockey.

    Neil, have you heard anything like this?

  10. Paul, Wang doesn’t own the arena – why would he spend his own money to renovate it? I understand a “no” vote – in fact had i had a vote i would’ve probably voted “no.” But it’s the county’s duty to renovate, as they OWN THE ARENA.

    I suspect a sale by Wang is next up, with a move after that – to where is a good question. (And a move to the Barclay Center would be ideal for a permanent location).

    In reality, there’s no real reason for the team to stick in Uniondale – unlike the Miami example in the post above, Uniondale offers NOTHING for the Islanders – no good fanbase, no mass transit, nothing. It’s got to be the oddest place for one of the four major US Sports Leagues to have a stadium.

    The team can only make money if they move to a place with mass transit. Uniondale does not fit.

    In

  11. David: I have a call in to Forest City Ratner on this right now. My impression is the same as yours: The arena would require extensive retrofitting to squeeze in a hockey rink. See images here:

    noticingnewyork.blogspot.com/2011/04/question-revisited-how-craftily-close.html

    There’s a Post item today that claims the Barclays Center will be “NHL size,” but it looks like that refers to capacity, not floor size. Will report back here if FCR can shed any light on the subject.

  12. Neil, they would have three-four years to do such retrofitting, so even if that was needed it would be possible.

  13. There’s definitely time, just wondering if there’s money. It looks at first glance like it would take a major reworking of the lower seating bowl to squeeze the Islanders in there.

    FCR called me back, said they’re going to get me a statement shortly. Stay tuned.

  14. If it works, they could move to Barclays and still call themselves the Islanders, albeit at the western tip of the Island. I am betting Wang could make enough money there to compete with the Rangers and Devils.

  15. garik16,

    If the terms of a new lease are favorable to Wang, he might sink his own money into the Coliseum. Many businesses renovate buildings that they do not own. Wang proposed to renovate the areana as part of the Lighthouse project.

    Wang has to realize that the Mets, Yankees, Jets, Giants, Nets, Devils, Knicks have all spent there own money on arenas and stadium projects.

    Why should Wang expect get a taxpayer financed arena in this economic climate.

    The more I think about it, Wang should just sell the team.

  16. Paul, All seven of those teams (well not quite the Jets, but sort of) OWNED THEIR ARENAS. Big difference.

    And for the record, Wang did originally propose 5 years ago to renovate the area on his own, but the town coordinator killed it. It had county approval too. (Not saying that the vote should’ve been yes yesterday, but just making the point.)

  17. Citi Field and Yankee Stadium are owned by the city of New York and leased to the Mets and Yanks. Prudential Center is owned by the Newark Housing Authority and leased to the Devils.

  18. Let me rephrase then Neil – those stadiums are under full control of the teams in question – all revenue from the stadium goes to the team.

    Not so the coliseum. Yes a new lease could change that, but seriously, WHY IS THERE ANY INTEREST IN STAYING IN UNIONDALE.

  19. The Barclays Center website indicates that ice shows can be held at the arena. Judging by the virtual arena on the site, a rink would be set up off-center, causing a few thousand seats on one end to lose a view of about a third of the ice. It’s similar to how the US Airways arena used to look back when the Coyotes played there.

    The bottom line is that the team and The NHL would likely find the setup unacceptable long-term, but if they have to play there for a season during a renovation I would think they could.

  20. And the response from Barclays Center CEO Brett Yormark:

    “The Barclays Center will have an ice rink that can support professional hockey. Due to the venue’s design, the capacity for hockey would be a few thousand seats less than for basketball. While we hope to explore hockey opportunities in the future, our primary focus at the moment is to build the best sports and entertainment venue in the world.”

    blogs.villagevoice.com/runninscared/2011/08/are_the_islande.php

    In other words, sounds like pretty much as Ben described it above: They could squeeze something in, but it wouldn’t be pretty, and would require a serious makeover in the long run. (Yormark didn’t answer my question about how much that would cost.)

    Also, thanks for the reminder about the old Phoenix arena, Ben — I ended up referencing it in the Voice article linked above…

  21. Garik:

    It is has become a common misconception that Wang ‘offered to pay’ for the lighthouse project himself. In reality, he did no such thing.

    There is a big difference between ‘building something with your own money’ and a ‘potentially privately financed’ project.

    summarized from Newsday’s article of 1 Oct 2009:

    CW’s lighthouse project was not “shut down” by the taxpayers. He imposed an arbitrary deadline of Oct 3rd 2009 for the county to approve both zoning and his suggested lease terms (hint: very favourable to his club). The county asked for more information on the deal (which included, among other things, the county transferring 77 acres of public undeveloped land to his company, him building the $320m arena with private funds, paying the county $50m for ‘traffic mitigation’, and paying the city just $1.5m in annual rent on the arena in exchange for all arena related revenues. Oh, and the developers also had the right to buy all the land in the development (150 acres) less the arena itself for $1. But hey, details…)

    When the developers refused to provide additional information or extend the deadline to allow the project particulars to be reviewed in more detail, CW pulled it. One of his minions pronounced “Shame on those who stopped this deal” (which would be Wang himself, technically, so I agree fully).

    The taxpayers of Hempstead and Nassau County did not kill the Lighthouse deal. The developers own arrogance, deceptive nature and voluntary press release did.

    That doesn’t sound like a fair market value “offer to pay” to me. Does it to you?

  22. We now have the definitive source as to whether there could be an ice rink at Barclay’s Center I want to make a small point.

    If an arena advertises the ability to “put on an ice show” that does not necessarily mean a rink. Many of the current touring “ice shows” do not use actual ice but a synthetic. I do not how long or widespread this practice is but I know of a few “non-rink” arenas that have scheduled “ice shows”.

    See

  23. John,

    Those words come near essentially from Kate Murray, the town developer herself.

    The arbitrary deadline, though arbitrary and him shutting down was stupid PR wise, came after years of delay from Kate Murray, who clearly wanted to kill the project for political gains, not actual reasons.

    When Wang killed the project, my guess is he no longer could get the private investment anyhow as the recession had set in.

    Regardless, as I’ve stated before, I simply hope that the inevitable new owner (I really can’t see Wang keeping the team) wants to move the team to a place in the Metro Area. It’s too good a market to leave, especially if the new location has mass transit.

  24. What Nassau County will have to do is come up with a creative financing plan similiar to the PILOTS used to pay for Citi Field, Yankee Stadium and a signifiant portion of the Barclay’s center.

    If Wang wanted to sell the team he would have done so already-he really wanted the development rights around the Coliseum site in exchange for a renovated building. He gave that up with the defeated public financing plan by Nassau County.

    Moving to the Barclay’s Center means he would lose significant revenue from advertising and suites which he retains in Nassau County.

    If the Barclay’s Center cannot have enough events
    in the building-i.e., they are projecting 250 events per year-(the Prudential Center with the Nets now has around 200)-then it would be worthwhile for FCR to explore buying the team and making significan alterations to the lower bowl for hockey.

    We should know where this is headed by Spring, 2012.

  25. Garik:

    They may well all be ‘quotes’ from Ms. Murray. The source is irrelevant unless you are suggesting that the points made are untrue or fabricated?

    What Mr. Wang wanted was a quickie decision by the development authority to essentially give him 145 acres of land around the arena. I can’t comment on whether the timeline that Murray worked to was reasonable or not. All I will say is that when public assets are involved, public officials (and elected ones) have a process they must follow. This includes public consultations and may even include an open RFP or a plebiscite. (In reality, if public lands are to be transferred or otherwise disposed of, an open RFP in which any developer with demonstrated financial backing should be able to submit a proposal for consideration. Who said Wang should be entitled to public land because he owns the hockey team?)

    My understanding is that Wang did not have ‘firm’ financing for his portion of the project and that he wanted rezoning and approval before seeking actual financing. Is that your understanding also?

    He may never have had anything but an idea here…

  26. Neil, I’m glad I could help with the Phoenix reference, but did you have to take a potshot at my beloved hometown of Milwaukee. For the record, Milwaukee’s TV ratings for national hockey events (Olympics and Stanley Cup Finals) are very good (especially for a non-NHL town) and the arena’s sight lines are better for hockey than they are for basketball. I would even go so far as to say that if we disqualify the locations with arena/site problems (Toronto, Hamilton, Quebec, Brooklyn and Seattle), Milwaukee would rank up there with Portland, Atlanta and Houston as the best destination if the Isles leave.

  27. I think “up there with Portland” pretty much says it all there. I have a great fondness for both Milwaukee and its frozen custard, but that doesn’t change the fact that it’s a tiny market, with an arena that is considered old in sports business years. There’s nothing there, revenue-wise, that the Isles don’t already have in Nassau.

  28. The Islanders in Queens or Kings will not work for this season ticket holding Suffolk county resident. I understand why thevoters turned it down.It would have almost certainly cost Nassau taxpayers money and they have done a very good job of bankrupting their rich county and driving away a number of my friends as it is. It wasn’t a perfect plan but Nassau county will suffer more without the Islanders than it will having them, both financially and emotionally.

    As far as someone else buying the team and doing a better job…maybe but whom. You’d figure in New York there are a whole bunch of rich hedge funds managers looking to buy a toy after gourging themselves on TARP money. Jeff Vink bought Tampa. But you never hear any names. And as bad as Wang has been, he is miles ahead of the several previous owners. But since John Spano is out of jail and got clearance from Gary Bettman and Fleet Bank in the 1990s, maybe he will save us.

    I understand there are far more important things in life and if they do leave,I’ll find something else (like buying a big screen HD tv for the centre ice package). But it isfun to sit in the 300s with a beer and suasage&pepper hero chanting “let’s go Islanders” after DiPietro has given up yet another soft goal.

    As far as “they won’t leave NY”, weren’t people saying that about the Jets or Giants in the 1950s? Or Baltimoreans saying that about the Colts before Irsay brought in the moving vans under the cover ofnight?

  29. I definitely never thought the Colts would leave New York.

    Look, I think the thing to remember here is that the last teams to leave the New York area (not just the city boundaries) were the Brooklyn Dodgers and New York Giants. Unless somebody invents air travel again, I don’t see those circumstances repeating themselves.

    I’m not saying there’s no chance of the Islanders moving out of the NYC area. Just that the NYC area itself (and its revenue potential) is a huge, huge benefit to any sports team, even if they have to play in a rotting barn or a quonset hut. It’s not something you throw away lightly.

  30. I agree, Neil (except the part about the Colts being in NY).

    The options Mr. Wang (or whomever) has for relocation are, if anything, worse than the options in state.

    I’ve asked this on a number of other threads, but do you think a different owner might get more co-operation out of the city/county than Wang has?

    He could probably get this deal done by just agreeing to cover all $26m in debt service (and if his projections are even 100% overstated, it would still be a good deal for him to do so), but assuming that won’t happen, I have to think his next step is to try to sell.

    As Mr. Overmeyer says, though, to whom? NHL franchises aren’t exactly hot commodities these days. And there are lots available for purchase…

  31. If the county can agree to give Mr. Wang favorable terms for rebuilding an arena by himself, he could build a beauty for far less than the $350 million that this vote sought. Moreover, that’d bring down the debt payments considerably, and it’s possible the arena could even turn a profit. Of course, that’s all contingent on the county allowing favorable terms in exchange for his construction investment. If it’s really going to cost them so much in upkeep if/after the Isles leave… why not at least try?

  32. Whether it would be shoe-hornied in or not, if a ice hockey rink could be put into the Barclay’s Center, would it be filled for 41 regular season games a season?

    So what if it only has 15,000 seats for NHL games? If it makes the team more money playing there with less seats than the Coliseum, or any place they’d move, why not move to Brooklyn?

  33. Neil, it won’t be Houston. According to wikipedia (yeah, I know, not so reliable) Rockets’ owner Leslie Alexander has to own an NHL team there according to the Toyota Arena lease. He’s shown no interest in doing so. I’m guessing that unless something else turns up by 2015, Wang will hold his nose and go for Kansas City.

  34. Brooklyn is going to have more like 11-12k unobstructed seats. That could work for a season, but long term they need to be elsewhere.

  35. Thanks, Marty — didn’t know about that part of the Houston lease. Not sure that K.C. makes sense, though, unless AEG comes under serious pressure to get a team at all costs.

    Ben, any source for the 11-12k unobstructed seats? Not that I doubt you, but I had a reporter calling me today asking for that number, so I’d love to tell him how to find it, or at least guesstimate it.

  36. Marty, Les Alexander tried to buy the Edmonton Oilers in 1998 for the sole purpose of moving them to Houston. My guess is that when the price is right for a struggling team Alexander may get involved. But then again, with the world economics being what they are adding a 4th team to the Houston market may not make the most sense.

  37. Just saw the request, Neil. That is an estimate based on announced basketball capacity and the number of unobstructed seats arenas of similar size and design (Charlotte, Indianapolis, San Antonio, etc) have for hockey. It is also what US Airways arena had, based on my memory of what TV announcers used to say during games there. I’d have to do some digging to get a good reference to the US Airways arena number.

  38. Andrew, yes I remember the Oilers bit (funny – if it’d gone through, we may have had the Houston Oilers.# But I’m thinking Alexander may have soured on the NHL because of the relative lack of TV money. I’m thinking the only way it’ll happen is if the NBA lockout drags into its fifth year and old Leslie needs SOMETHING to fill those arena dates.

    Brooklyn is absolutely not happening. Russian guy will want a lot of cash, the Barclays Center will have too many obstructed view seats that’ll have to be sold at a discount, etc etc.

    Neil, I agree KC / Anschutz / et al won’t be thrilled to have an NHL team and Wang is still probably remembering the bad crowd he got for that exhibition game a while back but where else can he go? Seattle is a non-starter without another building #Yes, the Key Arena’s not THAT old, but has that three-quarters configuration BS like US Airways Arena etc).

  39. All the whining by Bettman, Wang, et. al. about how a decrepit the Coliseum is nonsense – bottom line is if they put a competitive team out there, the fans will come back. The Thrashers had a nice modern facility and were lucky to draw 10,000 a game. The Coliseum can be renovated and updated – a new building on Hempstead Turnpike is not necessary.

  40. Here is the link for the Toyota Center letter of agreement and it includes NHL Team and NHL Team’s Rights should Houston get an NHL team. The minor hockey team Houston Aeros is also included in the letter of agreement.

    www.houstonsports.org/legal_info/multi-purpose_arena_letter_of_agreement/

  41. Marty, KC no longer uses the Kemper Arena (next to the old stockyards) except for the American Royal rodeo each year so no one has to hold their noses any longer!

    :)

  42. I wanted to respond, albeit very late, to many posts above (the last from John Bladen:

    All parties involved have covered themselves in disgrace. First, Wang’s project was unrealistically gargantuan back in 2004, when compared to the surroundings (the original plan called for a canal! and a lighthouse structure that would have easily dwarfed the next largest).

    Never mind that right around this time, it appeared that Wang started to slowly stop investing/spending aggressively on player salaries, which in the long run killed their own political viability.

    However, instead of the Nassau government and Town of Hempstead just coming out (as early as 2005, when the town started its own process) and, publicly, saying that the concept would never fly, they let it linger through endless stalling and political wrangling until it fell in Kate Murray’s lap in 09′.

    Due to concurrent factors (bad economy, county bankruptcy impending, team has continued to suck for the past quarter century killing political viability), Murray came back with a revised plan that the Town of Hempstead would agree to; which Reckson Development, the firm backing the project, deemed it would not make enough money on, so Wang killed it.

    ALL sides have been amazingly incompetent and arrogant, which is why they are likely going to Quebec (after Wang sells to Quebecor at a highly inflated price to recoup his losses), where there is an arena to built just in time for the Islanders’ current lease to end in 2015. Look for Bettman to give the “new” Nordiques a push and make the Cup finals in 2016.