Thursday, July 21, 2011

Voices From The Ledge

A "Thumbs Up" And A "Thumbs Down" On Nassau Hub Plan

The vote is scheduled for Monday, August 1.

The pols have spoken. The Unions have chimed in. The Isles have broken the ice. Even we at The Community Alliance have put in our two cents (or was that $58, $13.65, or a tax figure to be added to the bottom line later?). Soon it will be your turn to give the Coliseum Referendum a YEA or a NAY.

Now, two more voices can be heard: Eric Alexander, Executive Director of Vision Long Island, and Jay Jacobs, Chair of both the NYS Democratic Committee and Nassau County Democratic Committee.

Reprinted from the Editorial pages of the LI Herald, the debate sallies forth:

Pro and con on Nassau Coliseum redevelopment

Vote ‘yes’

After years of meetings planning the future of the Nassau Hub area, it is time to support the bond act that will refinance Nassau Veterans Memorial Coliseum. Public financing of the arena would allow the Islanders to stay on Long Island, preserve the tax base and provide the opportunity for mixed-use development and revitalization in the surrounding area.

A responsibly financed Coliseum redevelopment would enhance the quality of life in Nassau County by providing the state-of-the-art sports and entertainment complex the county deserves. It would be a strong first step toward a new town center at the Hub, one that would expand the tax base, provide jobs and create tangible economic development benefits well into the future.

For the many residents, civic associations, small businesses, chambers of commerce and other local organizations that supported the Lighthouse project and other past proposals for redevelopment, supporting the bond is a logical choice. There are many reasons why the Lighthouse project did not move forward, despite wide and deep public support. Chief among them was the Town of Hempstead’s fear of the project’s impact, as well as the failure to secure necessary state and federal infrastructure funding by former county officials.

The kind of “smart growth” proposal offered by the Lighthouse project is critical to Long Island’s future. The current redevelopment proposal offers similar promise while using different methods. Redevelopment of the Coliseum would serve as a companion to the town’s recently approved mixed-use code in the area around the arena, which includes housing, office and retail with new development guidelines.

The county is expected to prepare a request for proposals for development around the Coliseum. Vision Long Island encourages this development to include an integrated mix of uses, various housing options, including a work force component, accessibility to public transportation, walkable streets and a strong, safe link to Hofstra University, Nassau Community College, Museum Row and offices in the area. Additionally, we hope to see ample state and federal dollars for infrastructure improvements around the new development, which was absent from previous proposals.

Long Islanders need jobs. One of the region’s most pressing challenges is to keep workers, including young workers, from leaving the area. Revitalizing the Nassau Coliseum would not only create a regional high-quality entertainment hub that would cater to a wide demographic range, from the very young to seniors, it would also create expanded employment opportunities for residents of a densely populated area.

According to Nassau County’s economic impact statement, the project would provide a positive cash flow of $2.2 million annually, in excess of the debt service of $26 million. The new Coliseum would attract about 1.37 million visitors each year, versus the no-build alternative of 100,500 visitors — or far fewer if the Islanders ultimately move.

The $400 million bond proposition would provide key infrastructure and facility financing in and around the Hub area. This bond could spur critical economic growth for Nassau County. After careful analysis and discussion with business and government leaders, we believe this plan to be responsible and appropriate.

We are happy that the public will be able to weigh in on this project via a referendum on Aug. 1. Vote “yes” in that referendum.

Eric Alexander is executive director of Vision Long Island, a nonprofit smart-growth planning organization that has long supported redevelopment in the Nassau Hub.

Vote ‘no’

Two weeks ago I was featured in a Newsday story about County Executive Ed Mangano’s plan to revamp Nassau Veterans Memorial Coliseum with $400 million in borrowed money. The paper described me as “one of the loudest opponents of the proposal,” and I described the Coliseum bond as “something that is not going to pass.”

After the story ran, the Nassau Democratic Committee received a dozen emails from people who took my words to mean that Democrats don’t want the New York Islanders to stay in Nassau County.

There’s a difference between supporting the Islanders and supporting bad fiscal policy. I like the Islanders. I want them to stay on Long Island. But it doesn’t make sense to rebuild their arena on the taxpayer’s dime.

While it’s true that a new-and-improved Coliseum would be a nicer place to see sporting events and concerts, we need to ask ourselves: Is a nicer Coliseum worth a 4 percent increase in our county’s sky-high property taxes? I don’t think the people of Nassau County will vote to increase their own taxes. We’re smarter than that.

The people who stand to benefit most from a new Coliseum are private businessmen and women, with Islanders owner Charles Wang chief among them. With all due respect to Mr. Wang, it’s clear that he recognizes how much he has to gain from a new arena. Five years ago he was willing to partner with Reckson Associates to renovate the aging Coliseum and develop the surrounding land — without taxpayer money.

The Wang-Reckson plan fizzled owing to inside baseball in the Town of Hempstead. I won’t go into the details because that’s water under the bridge, but I want to remind county taxpayers that we came close to getting a new Coliseum financed entirely by private enterprise. That’s the solution we need to pursue today, because the county can’t afford to take on $400 million in new debt to pay for this project.

If voters approve this massive bond on Aug. 1, the county will have to pay about $26 million in debt service every year for the next 30 years. In return, the county will receive about $14 million in profits from the new Coliseum. That would leave taxpayers on the hook for $12 million to cover the rest of the debt service — every year for the next 30 years.

Unless my calculator is broken, Mangano must be stringing us along when he says his Coliseum plan wouldn’t cost taxpayers a thing. It’s hard enough to raise a family on Long Island. Our finances are already stretched to the limit by the cost of owning a home, sending our children to school and paying the taxes that accompany all of these things. We can’t afford to increase our property-tax bills by paying for a project that Mr. Wang could easily finance himself.

Nassau County is proud to be the home of the Islanders. We’d love to have a new arena, but we simply don’t have the money — not in the county’s coffers, not in our overstretched budget and certainly not in taxpayers’ pockets.

Jay Jacobs is chairman of the Nassau County Democratic Committee and the New York State Democratic Committee.
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Sensing quite a bit of ambivalence on the issue of the Hub/Coliseum redevelopment plan among County residents (notwithstanding the lopsided numbers in our own unscientific survey), and having expressed, in this blog, our own uncertainties, we are disposed nevertheless to err -- if, in fact, it is to err -- on the side of the visionaries (limited though their sights may be in this scaled-back, taxpayer-financed, decades-delayed redevelopment project).

While Mr. Jacobs makes a number of valid points -- from debt we can't afford to a town's refusal to move a privately funded, comprehensive plan, in the form of the Lighthouse Project, forward -- the gist, we fear,  is more "us vs. them" political grandstanding and opportunism than it is true concern over taxpayers' wallets and Nassau County's future.

Whether the Hub/Coliseum plan, if passed by the voters on August 1, and thereafter approved by the County Legislature and the Nassau Interim Finance Board (NIFA), ushers in an era of "Smart Growth", as Mr. Alexander so justifiably supports, or stands as iconic monument to far-fetched folly, remains to be seen.

One thing, though, is certain. Doing nothing bears the greatest cost of all to the citizens of America's first suburb. We take a chance that we are, indeed, at least beginning to move forward in the right direction, or, we stand pat, with little left for us to do but cue the tumbleweeds!

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