On Dec. 20, Gov. Andrew Cuomo arrived to much fanfare at Belmont Park to make a major announcement: The Islanders would return to Long Island — in a new $1 billion arena at the park, which is to be built by the 2021-22 NHL season.
The Islanders will be “back where they belong” was the refrain repeated that celebratory day. But will they really? That’s a critical question that local government officials, caught up in the elation of the moment, were not asking at the time.
No doubt, the Barclays Center, in downtown Brooklyn, is no place for the Islanders. There are certainly lots of Islanders fans in New York City, but the squad’s fan base is here on Long Island — as in, Nassau and Suffolk counties.
While it’s exciting to hear that an ultra-modern arena is coming to Belmont, which is ripe for redevelopment, the proposal raises many potential issues. For starters, the location of the planned arena — in the southwestern corner of Nassau County, on the border with Queens — will make it difficult for Islanders fans, particularly those from eastern Suffolk, to reach it. Even from Nassau’s North Shore, Belmont is something of a hike. The Islanders’ former location, the Nassau Coliseum, was centrally located and readily accessible to fans in both counties.
The primary car route to Belmont — the Cross Island Parkway — is often choked by traffic at rush hour. Add to that an estimated 9,000 to 18,000 vehicles all trying to squeeze into the park, and you have a recipe for one very big traffic mess.
Mass transit would have to be part of the equation. In fact, Richard Browne, a partner at Sterling Project Development, which is involved in the arena project, said unequivocally that Belmont’s Long Island Rail Road station would be essential to the project’s success. But the station is dilapidated, and the only time it gets any real use is on Belmont Stakes day in June.
Elmont residents have long favored a full-service train station at the park, which could take years to build and cost tens of millions of dollars, if not more. What will become of the station when the Islanders move in is unclear. Experts have said that the entire LIRR system is operating at capacity, and that even a limited increase in service at Belmont would be out of the question unless there were significant upgrades and additions to the system.
Perhaps the arena developers are planning a shuttle service — say, from Jamaica Station? If so, they haven’t said so publicly. If such a service were to be created, how many buses would be needed? At what cost? Would the Cross Island need to be upgraded to accommodate a steady stream of large buses?
No matter what, it appears that Islanders fans from Nassau and Suffolk counties would have a tougher time getting to Belmont than to the Coliseum, which would suggest that the Islanders, despite a shiny new arena, would continue to struggle to attract fans. For years, attendance at Islanders games has hovered in the mid-11,000 range — far short of filling the proposed 18,000-seat Belmont arena.
The Islanders are expected to play 40 home games there each year. The arena’s developers are proposing to host an additional 110 events per year. The venue will, of course, have to compete with the Coliseum, Citi Field, Madison Square Garden, Barclays Center and even Yankee Stadium for fans to fill seats for those events. Given that level of competition, it’s an open question whether the new arena will become a money-maker.
Southwestern Nassau County certainly needs an economic shot in the arm. The open and empty 43 acres at Belmont Park where the arena is to be built have languished for years — we believe unnecessarily. All manner of projects have been proposed — or at least discussed — for the site: a soccer stadium, a supermarket, a big-box store, an entire retail district, you name it.
None of these proposals has panned out, however, for any number of reasons. All the while, residents of Elmont and surrounding communities have suffered, with their pleas for help and their concerns all too often ignored. At this point, they deserve a viable project that will help restore economic viability to the area and build up those communities. The Islanders arena might very well be that project. There are, however, too many unanswered questions remaining to be able to tell for sure.