Nassau County voters shot down a proposal to rebuild the 39-year-old Nassau Veterans Memorial Coliseum in an August referendum Monday by a 14-percent margin, raising unanswered questions about whether the NHL’s New York Islanders will continue calling the aging arena home.
With about half of the ballots counted, the result was called at about 11:30 p.m. The unofficial tally upon the first count showed a more than 21,500 vote difference out of more than 155,218 cast with about 5,000 absentee ballots awaiting review.
“I’m heartbroken that this was not passed,” Islanders owner Charles Wang said, twice describing the results as disappointing during a news conference at the Coliseum.
“I feel that the sound bites ruled the day and not the facts,” he said. “Right now, it’s an emotional time and we’re not going to make any comments on any specific next steps.”
The rejected plan would have granted taxpayer approval for the county to borrow $400 million to replace the Coliseum and build a minor league baseball park nearby. Wang has said he would be forced to move the hockey team if they don’t get a new arena by the time their lease expires in 2015.
“This just opens up a new door,” County Executive Ed Mangano said. “We will continue to move ahead. In the coming weeks we will seek additional options for this property.”
Neither Mangano nor Wang took questions after making their statements, reviving speculation that the team could move to Kansas City, New York City, Canada or elsewhere if a new plan doesn’t materialize before the clock runs out. Wang reiterated that the team will stay put until the lease it up.
It was Wang’s second failed attempt in a decade to secure a new Coliseum for the Islanders after the privately funded Lighthouse Project, a mixed-use development plan anchored by the arena, died in the protracted planning stages. Mangano’s publicly financed Plan B was touted as a way to create much-needed jobs, spur economic development and keep Long Island’s only professional sports franchise.
Unions, business groups, nonprofits and a host of others rallied around the plan during an intense “Vote Yes” media blitz in the weeks and days right up until the referendum. Critics balked at the anticipated tax increase that taxpayers would shoulder while the county struggles to contend with projected budget deficits.
“I just don’t think there’s enough information out there,” said Reggie Paylor of Uniondale after voting no. “Everyone wants the Island to obviously prosper, but I just don’t think it’s very well thought out. I think it’s a little rushed.”
Islanders fans chanted for their team outside the box office, some tearing up at the news.
“It’s like a part of my heart is being ripped out,” said 21-year-old Matt Stein of West Babylon, a season ticket holder carrying a homemade “New Arena or Riot” sign. As a Suffolk County resident, he could not vote to help his team, but he could rally in support.
“They better do something to get us back in here,” he said. “Some way, somehow, I hope that we’ll be back.”
-With Jim Mancari