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Michael Miller

Viewpoint

By Michael Miller
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The Lost Library

We enter another round, after dozens of rounds over 50 years, of figuring out what to do with the last 97 acres of county land at Mitchel Field. We’re down to less than one-fifth of the original, priceless canvas, and mostly we’ve gotten hundreds of acres of Ugly. What a waste.

The Nassau Veterans Coliseum was not originally intended to sit out there in a sea of parking lots, like a giant white whale. It was designed to anchor one end of a 186-acre J.F.K. Center of Education and Culture that has been the only plan ever offered for Mitchel Field that actually got the public interested and excited. The coliseum, which was to be surrounded by lawns and gardens, was one of seven elements of the complex, which itself was one component in a potential unified landscape larger than Central Park or Eisenhower Park.

At the time, they could have built the whole thing for less than what it now costs Nassau County each year to maintain its bleeding property tax system. It’s more than a waste; it’s a public policy tragedy.

Three of the seven units of this county center were built, sort of. Internecine warfare led to part of the arts community bailing out on the concert hall, leading directly to the construction of what is now the Tilles Center for the Performing Arts at Long Island University. This is a fine facility, but most readers haven’t been there and probably don’t exactly know where it is.

The county moved ahead with another element of the original conception: the Nassau County Research Library. By 1969, the overall plan had been transmogrified into Nassau Center and included the coliseum, a hotel, residential and commercial areas and the library.

They were very careful not to step on toes. It was emphasized that the library was to offer materials not available at the 54 local libraries. It was not a threat. The library community pushed for it. The business community saw the planned mountain of census and securities data, directories, studies, reports and maps as major potential assets and tools for growth. Residents liked it.

No other suburb had something like this. It was a big idea, geared to the future. It was what Nassau County used to be in most people’s minds. It would be a repository of government documents and reports, years before New York or the federal government had Freedom of Information laws.

And it opened. The Board of Supervisors, the old county legislature, unanimously moved forward with the $17 million library ($12 million for the building and $5 million for books), with construction to begin in Fall 1973. The old Air Force firehouse was commandeered as a temporary space. Through purchases and donations, there were 250,000 books and documents on hand when it officially opened in May 1975. The collection was supposed to hit 1.4 million volumes in the new building.

It was already a Dead Man Walking.

With a recession and a budget deficit, the county suspended all funding for the NCRL at the end of 1975. There was a major effort by the Long Island Association, the island’s largest business organization, to raise donations to save it, but support didn’t meet hopes. Suffolk County refused to share costs for a library in the middle of Nassau County. After a year of operating on a skeleton staff, the library closed and was stripped of its state charter. The entire collection was handed over to L.I.U., which increased the holdings of its C.W. Post campus library by 50 percent in one go.

Total expenses exceeding $17 million of today’s dollars went out the window.

The first crack in support for the research library came from the library community itself. In letters to the editor, opinion pieces in newspapers and hearing testimonies, some library directors and trustees now condemned the project as a diversion of resources from more important things, such as Nassau Library System, which provided services directly to local libraries. The Board of Supervisors, faced with all kinds of unpopular choices, grabbed the lifeline.

When the going got tough and complex, all kinds of constituencies ate their own.

That’s the lesson. That’s the warning.

Michael Miller is a freelance writer, designer and strategic consultant who has worked in state and local government. Email: millercolumn@optimum.net