The Long Island Tragedy

Who could leave this wonderland? Photo by Miguel Cepeda

New York Islanders owner Charles Wang used the words “heartbroken” and “disappointed” to describe his feelings on Monday.  His plan for a referendum to build a new arena for the Islanders was shot down by Nassau County voters.  Now without a home past 2015, the Islanders franchise is stuck in a bizarre combination of uncertainty and hopelessness.  Time is running out to build a new arena by the time the prior lease is up, but the Islanders have already been rejected by their own fan base.  After the choices made, I don’t see how the team and city could make up.

The Nassau Veterans Memorial Coliseum is notorious in sports for its small capacity, utter lack of charm, and cruddy tenants.  The Islanders have called the Coliseum home since 1972, and experienced huge success with four consecutive Stanley Cups in the early ’80s.  Things have not been nearly as great in Long Island since then.  The Islanders have not won a playoff series since 1993.  The building has not aged well.  It would be easy to blame ownership and management for such an extended period of futility, but the real culprit could be the Coliseum.

It’s pretty easy to see that players would balk at playing hockey in a concrete barn like the Coliseum, in a rough area like Uniondale, under the pressure of the Islander dynasty.  The current Islanders team lives in the shadow of the greatness of the great days of yore.  A new arena could usher in a new era for the team, instead of drawing out the old one.  The Islanders need to be reinvented, but they needed a little bit of money to make it happen.  But that shouldn’t have been a problem.  All they needed was some money from the county that has been their home for years.  Nassau County loves its Islanders!

I guess not.  The referendum that would have lent the Islanders $400 million to build a new arena by 2015 was shot down.  56% of voters flat-out said no.  Higher taxes could be the culprit (Nassau residents already pay an average property tax bill of $11,500, almost the highest in the country), but the vote seems like a knee-jerk reaction.

Can Uniondale continue to rake in money without the Islanders (Nassau County is the 11th richest county in the country, according to Forbes)?  How could the money have been better spent?  Will the jobs fly out of Long Island if its only sports team does?   Voters probably saw the unfairness of higher taxes.  The worst projections had Nassau residents paying an extra $58 a year on taxes if the referendum passed.  Wang has maintained that there would be no tax hikes if the referendum was passed.  Maybe the vote was held in the wrong county at the wrong time.  Despite the massive income for Nassau County, the county hasn’t been able to balance the books: Nassau County’s finances were taken over by New York State oversight earlier this year for that reason.

My biggest question in this debacle is the community’s devotion to the Islanders.  Charles Wang explicitly stated that the franchise would honor its lease to the Coliseum until 2015.  It’s going to be an awkward 4 years.  The fans that your team is supposed to represent on the ice left their job or house on a Monday, paid for gas, stood in line, and voted against your right to exist in their town.  As a player, how could you not look in disgust at the fans in the stands?  Nassau County has spoken, and they have said that they don’t want you around.  If I was Wang, I would get the heck out of that place as soon as possible.  There has to be a city with a serviceable arena, a rabid fan base, and a willingness to stick by their team through thick and thin.  Nassau County’s voters decided they don’t need their Islanders, but let’s see how life is for them after their team ships off.

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  • costasc

    That’s flat out wrong. The Islanders fan base came out and voted YES, but the opposition focused on getting the 55 and up crowd in to vote it down. In the week preceding the vote, the Democratic opposition made approximately 100k automated calls to seniors using “Vote no against taxes” as their major point, knowing that the fixed income crowd was the one least swayed by “at worst its only $58 more a year”. So the septagenarians came out in droves before their morning walks thru the mall to vote no. That, combined with the massive LIRR delays and what seemed like God’s hand raining golf ball sized hail for most of the afternoon, kept things from even being close. It doesn’t really make a difference though. Naysayers are whining about why doesn’t Wang build it himself, but he tried that with the Lighthouse Project that was popular with the public, but ran into small time politics.

  • Scott Mullin

    @costasc I don’t think I meant to say that all Islander fans went out and voted against the referendum, the 44% had to come from somewhere. But it’s probably not entirely truthful that every senior citizen voted against it, either. The bottom line is that most of Nassau County said no. Petty politics and fear of higher taxes might have been the drive to vote no, but it makes you wonder how much a city should sacrifice to host a team.

    I agree with you that the Lighthouse Project was the best possible solution, but for whatever reason people didn’t like the idea. It’s upsetting, but I guess the Islanders can’t find a home where they are now.

  • costasc

    @Scott Mullin OK, it wasn’t every senior citizen, but I’d be willing to bet that the demographic of the NO voters was tilted heavily towards 55+.

    Also, “most of Nassau County” did not say no. Nassau’s population is about 1.34 million people with 900, 000 registered voters. I think less than 150K came out to vote, 90k voted no, so maybe 10% of registered voters in Nassau voted no, less than 7% of the total population.

    The people were FOR the Lighthouse Project. Resoundingly so. The republican run Town of Hempstead legislature (the municipality that Uniondale is in), refused to allow it regardless of public support because the Dems were behind it.

  • Scott Mullin

    @costasc the Lighthouse Project was a political fiasco, you’re right.

    I think the fact that only about 100,000 people voted for this referendum is another telling fact of the state of hockey on Long Island. If most of the people in Nassau County actually wanted this new arena, then why did so few people actually vote yes? It’s not like this issue wasn’t publicized.

  • costasc

    @Scott Mullin its the current state of apathy I guess. Even when Mangano was elected in 2009, the turnout was pretty low. only about 230k out of 900k registered voters.

    You also have to remember, they were counting on the union vote, and also a majority of their yes votes from 9-5-ers who commute from Manhattan, but as I said previously, freak thunderstorm parked over the area dumping a huge amount of rain and baseball sized hail, shutting down the Lpng Island Railroad for hours.

    http://cityroom.blogs.nytimes.com/2011/08/01/baseball-sized-hail-damages-cars-in-queens-and-long-island/

    So many that were planning on voting in the evening were just so happy to be home that they didn’t bother to vote.

    Either way, it is what it is, and its water under the bridge. I don’t see them staying in Nassau, but am hopeful they stay on Long Island.

  • Scott Mullin

    @costasc Yeah, that would be good in my eyes. I don’t know if any other city on Long Island could carry a team, but we’ll see. They might wing up in Brooklyn after all of this.

  • costasc

    @Scott Mullin Scott, Long Island is basically one huge mass of people. Just as many in Suffolk County as there are in Nassau. If they moved 15 miles east of their present location, they’d be just over the line in Suffolk County.

    Don’t know if Brooklyn works at all. Firstly, they wouldn’t get enough revenue out of the arena because they would just be a co-tenant, and I think they would have to pay some sort of fee to the Rangers because they would be so close to MSG.