Nassau County residents are voting Monday in a special election on a $400 million referendum that could lead to construction of a new home for the New York Islanders
. If the referendum passes, it would be the first step toward the completion of a new arena for the Islanders to play in, as well as a minor-league baseball stadium nearby.
County officials who support the effort say the vote is needed to give officials enough time to build a replacement for the aging Nassau Veterans Memorial Coliseum before the Isles' lease expires in 2015. Without a new building, team owner Charles Wang has said he may have to move the team out of Nassau County, either to another site on Long Island or to another market.
"Nervous I think is probably the best way to do it," Wang said last week of his feelings about the election. "I think it is going to be a tight race. We believe we have something very special here. We want the people to go out there and vote -- and vote yes, obviously."
Turnout was reported to be extremely low by early Monday afternoon -- Elections Commissioner William Biamonte said it was only about 5 percent of all registered voters. A thunderstorm that hit Long Island during the afternoon and suspended service on much of the Long Island Railroad could further reduce turnout.
Proponents of the project include labor unions, tourism officials and many business groups. They contend that the project will bring jobs and spark economic growth. Opponents say Nassau County, which has its finances under the control of a state watchdog agency after a fiscal emergency was declared earlier this year, should not be asking taxpayers to foot the bill.
The plan, which has been endorsed by Wang and Nassau County Executive Edward Mangano, would have the county borrow the $400 million through a general obligation bond. The Islanders released a proposed rendering of the arena on Sunday.
With the Barclays Center in Brooklyn set to open next year and Madison Square Garden undergoing a complete renovation, the departure of the Islanders would likely mean the eventual demise of the Coliseum, the only home the team has had since entering the NHL in 1972. The Islanders recently asked the county for $4 million dollars for a series of repairs, including fixes to the roof, some lower-bowl seating and the ice plant.
Mangano insists the Coliseum project would generate enough income to overcome any initial taxpayer investment. He says a management company created by Wang would be required to pay 11.5 percent of revenues generated from all events, not just Islanders games, with a guaranteed annual minimum of $14 million. He also said the county would reap sales tax revenue. He said the average cost to taxpayers would be as little as $14 per year, though others say the average could be four times higher.
"All transactions have risks," said Mangano, who argues that allowing the Islanders to move and shuttering the Coliseum would be more costly to taxpayers. He also points to studies that claim the project will create more than 1,500 construction jobs and more than 3,000 permanent jobs.
If the referendum passes, the next step would be approval of the plan by the 19-member county legislature, with 13 votes needed to pass.
The six-member Nassau Interim Finance Authority is not taking a formal position on the deal until after the vote.
“We will be watching closely to see if the residents of Nassau County, the highest-taxed county in the nation, have an appetite for a property tax increase,” authority member Leonard Steinman said at a meeting last month.
Construction on a new arena would begin in June 2012.
Wang has been trying to find a new place for the Islanders to play instead of the Nassau Veterans Memorial Coliseum, which opened in 1972. The team's lease with the building expires in 2015, and the current plan would be for the Islanders to move into the new arena at the start of the 2015-16 season.
The most prominent of Wang's plans was deemed "The Lighthouse Project," but the owner was unable to gain approval for the plan from the Town of Hempstead. The project -- which would have been privately financed -- came with an estimated cost of $3.74 billion that included a refurbished Coliseum, a minor-league baseball stadium and various other housing, hotels and businesses in the area.
"I think we have to face the reality of the situation,” he said prior to Monday's vote. “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."