Sunday, 5 April 2009

The Fog May Be Clearing

I have no allegiance to the New York Islanders aside from owning an Islanders Fisherman jersey. Growing up, I hated them simply due to their ability to pull off critical wins over a team that I followed in the Pittsburgh Penguins. Playoff series against the Islanders always seemed like the worst matchup due to the number of times those two teams played against each other. However, this article isn't about to re-open any old wounds that people may have thanks to the Islanders. Instead, I want to talk about the future of the New York Islanders, and, in particular, their new arena project that Charles Wang has proposed. To me, it seems elementary when someone proposes to put up a significant portion of his own cash to get a project started and wants the county/city to chip in. Especially when the benefits to that area will be tenfold for the area itself. But let's go through this logically.

The Lighthouse Project is, for lack of a better term, a monsterous undertaking by Mr. Wang as he looks to revitalize the Uniondale area and attract fans back to watch the New York Islanders. It contains multiple pieces of property that, when finished, will be the driving force behind the Long Island area. Included in the project are a brand-new multi-sport and event arena that the New York Islanders will call home, two multi-story office buildings, new green space, a major retail centre, a brand-new hotel, and a residential complex that contains both condominium and apartment housing. The 150-acre project would be completed in sections so as to move seemlessly through the ambitious plan. Just remember that Rome wasn't built in a day.

Instead of just yapping about what is included, I want to draw on my own experiences in the comparison between building a brand-new facility versus renovating an aging sports complex. In no way was building the MTS Centre in Winnipeg anywhere close to what Mr. Wang is proposing, but the same arguments and red tape have been thrown out to stop the project, so I can relate in a way to why I think the Lighthouse Project should be given the green light.

First, the Nassau County Memorial Coliseum, aka "Mausoleum", is old. The original version of the Coliseum was officially opened on May 29, 1972. It was upgraded and renovated from 1981 to 1984, and has stood proudly since that time. It might be time for an upgrade. Over the last few years, a large number of professional sports teams have built new facilities, and they have enjoyed an increase in their attendance. Sure, it might simply be due to people wanting to see their new home, but getting people into the arena is the hardest part, especially when your team has toiled in futility like the Islanders have over the last few years.

But it's not just about hockey. Nassau County Memorial Coliseum won "Arena of the Year" honours in 1995, and could very well rival Madison Square Garden with a new facility. As an example, the MTS Centre in Winnipeg - a place notorious for losing the Jets and not having a major professional sports team in any of the major leagues - finished 19th in the world for Top 100 list of arena venue ticket sales for the entire year of 2008. These tickets sales include only non-sporting touring events, and do not include such things as hockey. It ranks 13th in North America, and third in Canada for these ticket sales. That's right - one of the smallest capital cities in Canada has the third-busiest venue in Canada.

Not only do people show up to new venues, so do all the big shows that tour the continent. Why? Lots of reasons. Improved acoustics and sound, better seating, more amenities, and the chance to play in a brand-new facility all contribute to attracting these shows. With Mr. Wang's project, there is also a new hotel that is going up, so the economic benefits of bringing the touring shows to Long Island will be felt throughout that area. Why can't politicians see past their noses when it comes to the real, economic benefits of ambitious projects like this? And this only accounts for the non-sporting arena events!

It was revealed on March 31 that Town of Hempstead Supervisor Kate Murray would rather apply for a federal grant through President Barack Obama's stimulus plan to "revitalize" the Nassau Mausoleum Coliseum rather than chipping in money for Mr. Wang's project. She even made the case that the Nassau Coliseum is a historical site, and should be kept as it is with some minor cosmetic touch-ups.

Said Mrs. Murray, "Built to memorialize those heroic veterans who made the ultimate sacrifice and home to a treasured hockey franchise that has inspired regional pride and fostered a strong Long Island identity, the Coliseum is a 'shovel-ready' project clearly eligible for stimulus funding".
Again, I draw comparisons to the bleeding hearts in Winnipeg who wanted the former Eaton's building kept in its spot rather than putting the MTS Centre there. The Eaton's building was on a list with other historic buildings and landmarks as a "heritage site" due to its connection to the community since 1905. The problem? There was no tenant in the aging and decrepit building after Eaton's was bought by Sears. City council, urged by those who wanted the building saved, voted against keeping the building as a "heritage site" by a convincing 13-3 vote, thus paving the way for demolition and the building of the MTS Centre.

I have to ask if Mrs. Murray is more inclined to continually putting up boards on the side of a leaning shed rather than rebuilding it. If the old structure doesn't meet the needs for what it was intended to do, why wouldn't you rebuild? Why wouldn't you build a new structure to be a much more useful building? Especially when a large portion of the project is being funded by the guy who wants it built?

Newsday has already taken Mrs. Murray to task, calling her stimulus money idea a game of "smoke-and-mirrors". And, quite frankly, I believe Newsday to be right. Does it make sense for the federal government to use tax monies collected from all over the country to fund the renovations of an arena that only New Yorkers can use? It's not like this will benefit the country of the United States in any way. This seems like the opposite ploy that Mr. Wang is using in threatening to move his team to a new arena in Kansas City.

I will say this: Mrs. Murray doesn't feel that spending a ton of taxpayer money on the project is worth it, and she may be right. We're talking about a gigantic project here that will require a lot of money to complete. But she needs to view this in the same way that her constituents do: it will benefit everyone. Yes, it's expensive, but you don't have to renovate again in ten years, and you get immediate benefits of attracting people to your borough where they will spend their hard-earned dollars. By green-lighting the project, she will provide hundreds of jobs in the design process, thousands of jobs in the construction process, and countless jobs for people who will join the retail and private sectors when the project is complete.

For a country and state that is bleeding money due to "operational inefficiencies", creating jobs and putting money back into the community is a good way to start rebuilding the local economy. Every single American can see the value of that, and the project may even attract more people from outside the state of New York for work. If they lay down roots, that's also good for the economy.

If there anything I can say to the people of Long Island, I would tell them to continue to push on their politicians. Winnipeg hasn't been awarded an NHL team with their new building, but the considerable economic fallout of the various sporting and non-sporting events has shown a direct benefit for the city. Bands who once never considered Winnipeg a major stop on a tour schedule are now booking two-night stops due to the venue and the demand for tickets. Major events are booking multiple-night runs at the MTS Centre, and this has a direct economic spin-off for the city. While I can't comment on the economics of the retail, office, and residential speaces planned by Mr. Wang, I can certainly tell you that a brand-new, multi-use facility has immediate and long-term benefits, both economically and socially.

For a borough like Long Island, this sounds like something long overdue. While Mrs. Murray seemingly has backed off her renovation plans for the current arena, there is still a lot of positioning being done on both sides. I encourage you to stick to your guns, citizens of Long Island, because, if your fate is anything like the case of Manitobans, if you build it, they will come.

Until next time, keep your sticks on the ice!

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