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Word that a new New York Islanders era had begun was greeted by thunderous applause inside the coliseum as the signing of the deal was announced during an otherwise disappointing game against the Dallas Stars last Wednesday night.

Though the woeful team would go on to lose four to one, new co-owner Howard Milstein's pledge to bring a fifth Stanley Cup to the Island was enough to make most fans forget the present and instead begin thinking at length about a glorious future.

"Today, we make a personal pledge to our fans: to create a first rate experience, both on the ice and throughout the coliseum," Milstein said at a news conference the morning after taking control of the team.

"Our goal is to give the fans what they deserve, a great hockey team and devoted owners... we pledge to fill that empty place in every fan's heart with a Stanley Cup."

Gesturing to that cup, which stood next to the podium at which he spoke, Milstein added, "I don't want this cup just to visit; I want it to find a home here."

But if last Thursday morning's gathering of press and principals in the Islanders' clubhouse was a joyous occasion for sports fans, it came on the heels of a bitter and still brewing battle between Philadelphia-based Spectacor Management Group, which operates the Nassau Veterans Memorial Coliseum, and the New York Sports Venture Group and elected officials.

"Events and developments during the past several days have clearly demonstrated that Spectacor Management Group is literally holding a gun to the heads of our taxpayers and fans of the Islanders," County Executive Thomas S. Gulotta wrote in a February 25 letter to Howard Milstein.

"I have already instructed the county attorney's office to seek immediate injunctive relief against SMG to compel [it] to perform all of its legal responsibilities at the Nassau Veterans Memorial Coliseum, including but not limited to, the execution of the consent of transfer of ownership."

At Thursday's announcement before the press, the county executive admitted that the news was "a lot better" than he expected it would be.

"Frankly," he said. "I had anticipated a stand-off at center ice."

Reiterating and updating what he'd said in his letter to Milstein, Gulotta continued, "I take no exception to a business protecting its own interests, but I have to protect the interests of Nassau residents.

"I am delighted that this deal has been struck," he added. "Now let's move ahead with building a new sports complex."

Though reportedly no real estate or real estate rights changed hands in the $195 million deal to buy the Islanders, sources close to the situation indicated that the future development of a new coliseum and adjacent businesses was the real reason things got a bit hairy toward the very end of closing the deal.

In the past there was a clearly defined pecking order in the relationships between those with a stake in presenting professional hockey in Nassau. The county owned the coliseum and surrounding property, Spectacor ran the facility, and the Islanders were the principal tenant.

Though executives from Spectacor, who stood mostly silently at the back of the room during the Milstein-Gulotta press conference, said nothing about that relationship has changed, what was clear during the press conference is that the new Islander owners clearly see their place in the scheme of things far differently than the former owners did.

More than being about the future of a hockey team, the first press conference held by the new team ownership signaled the beginning of an entirely different process - negotiations between New York Sports Ventures and the county over the respective roles they'll play in the proposed $1.5 billion development of Nassau Central.

Repeatedly during his comments, Milstein told reporters that it was "premature to go into details about the new arena" that is soon to be built on the Hempstead Plain in Uniondale.

The sheer size of the Islander purchase alone, however - at $195 million it is the largest dollar amount ever paid for a team in the National Hockey League history - suggests that it will take more than luxury sky boxes and the like for New York Sports Ventures to re-coup its investment in any kind of reasonable time frame.

"Obviously, there is a business side," Milstein said when asked to justify the cost of the purchase. "We have to make sure that we make it work."

Making it work, a number of government officials have said privately, will likely mean New York Sports Ventures having a share of the peripheral assets on the site.

In addition to the new $200 million, 19,000 seat coliseum, these could include a new, three-story, 80,000 square foot convention center (actually, the old coliseum refurbished), a second hotel to complement the Long Island Marriott, and a two-story, arc-shaped 190,000 square foot retail and office development with sports and entertainment theme stores and restaurants.

According to the recently released Nassau Hub study, the area in between the new coliseum and the convention center will be turned into a tree-lined "Main Street," while the retail and office building will serve as a link between the Coliseum itself, Nassau Community College, and the Omni Building, Mitchel Park area.

The entire Nassau Central complex will be served by a six story, 122,500 square foot parking garage.

"This space will become one of the major orientation spaces for the Mitchel Field area," the study says, adding, "When the convention center events conclude in the evening, the light rail line will take many passengers up to the new Long Island Rail Road station [in Carle Place]."

In the Hub study, the "redevelopment of the coliseum site is.... an excellent opportunity to make a number of strategic connections [to the rest of the Hub], connections that will help pull the [entire area] together."

The light rail system or people mover being proposed to serve the area, will reportedly operate at grade through the coliseum area, with two embarkation stations being built within it.

"This is a real estate deal," said a source close to the Republican leadership of the county. "Buying the Islanders is just the price of admission for getting in on the development of what's being billed as 'Nassau Central.'

Privately, a number of local lawmakers agree with that assessment. In their view, it's most significant that New York Sports Ventures is a partnership that combines a love of hockey with money and the where-with-all to see a major real estate development through.

"Buying the Islanders is a two-part deal," said Mort Certilman, chairman of the Long Island Regional Planning Board and of the Nassau Veterans Memorial Coliseum Privatization Committee, during a recent interview with this newspaper regarding the future development of the Nassau Hub.

"Gluckstern and Milstein are buying the Islanders and hoping to get development rights too. Of course, we haven't given them that yet, but clearly, they are the favored parties."

Asked whether he agreed with that assessment, Milstein quickly said, "No."

"I expect the entire area to be developed in concert, but no, I won't be the preferred developer," he continued.

A number of people close to the situation say the future role of New York Sports Ventures in the development of Nassau Central is a delicate matter.

"Certilman can't say, 'You are the developer,' but once you have the Islanders, you're the player," said one source. "The entire Hub concept builds from there."

On Thursday, Milstein was scheduled to meet with County Executive Gulotta in the morning, and then Certilman later in the day.

"We're discussing development," Gulotta said. "A proposal is on the table... and we will discuss a multi-faceted sports complex."

In an aside, he added in jest, "the easy part, the purchase of the Islanders, is done. Now comes the difficult part."

Now that the new team ownership is in place and county officials can finally get down to talking about real-life development issues, the biggest hurdle confronting all concerned is money.

Going into their meeting with the county executive, New York Sports Ventures reportedly wants to receive a significant helping hand from state and county coffers. Thus far New York State has offered only $30 million for the project, barely enough to install one mile of light rail track in the area.

Gulotta wants to see private sector dollars used to fund most of the development.

During his press conference immediately after the Islander sale was consummated, Milstein characterized the dust-up with Spectacor as a "misunderstanding, " saying, "there must have been some confusion in our communication."

"We will work with SMG," he continued, "I gave them my personal assurance that we will treat them fairly."

Asked later what "fairly" meant, a Spectacor representative who was watching the press conference gestured coldly back toward the front of the room.

"Ask him," he said, pointing to Milstein.

If anyone is truly a big winner here, in the first days after the sale of the Islanders, it's not Milstein - who had to fork over considerable dough to consummate the sale - or the team's fans - who have yet to see the team turn on its heels and start winning - it's County Executive Gulotta, who after being burned by the John Spano affair, is being widely credited with saving the deal and keeping the team on Long Island.

As the press conference broke up at the Nassau Coliseum, one observer put it quite simply:

"Gulotta pulled off the big save here and now will probably get a new coliseum built with a minimal financial outlay from the county.

"If he does, he'll be kind of a mini-Robert Moses - not a bad thing to be if you have your sights set beyond the office of Nassau County Executive."

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