I don’t usually quote the Bible in my column, but the future of Belmont Park brings to mind the words of Ecclesiastes 3 (King James version). It lists the various stages of life, and suggests that there is a time for everything. In my thinking, it’s time for Belmont to become a vibrant, attractive and income-producing property that will benefit not just Long Island, but the rest of the state.
New York state has quite a few places that are desperately in need of revival. The rehabilitation of LaGuardia Airport is well under way, after years of neglect and indifference. Despite growing demand for air transportation, the state and the region ignored the rapid decay of a vital facility.
After LaGuardia, Belmont ranks close to the top as a state stepchild. Opened for business in 1905, it has been the home of some of horseracing’s most memorable events. People in the racing business will tell you that Belmont is considered one of the great facilities in the nation, along with Churchill Downs, in Kentucky, and Santa Anita, in California. In addition to its beauty and charm, Belmont possesses another quality: lots of available land for development.
If you polled Nassau County residents, most would have no idea what should be done with the Belmont property. The number of fans who attend horse races there is probably at an all-time low, because of the state’s failure to attract big-name horses and the general lack of enthusiasm for racing. Saratoga Race Course has always been the politicians’ darling, because it makes a lot of money in a short time and attracts the rich and powerful.
As far back as 1960, there were suggestions about how the Belmont property could be improved, and made more of a place that people would want to go to. Franklin D. Roosevelt Jr. suggested that a dome be built over the track so there could be year-round events, including concerts and social gatherings. That proposal went nowhere, because the state didn’t want to commit large sums of money to a location that was too close to the old Roosevelt Raceway.
In 2007, then Gov. Eliot Spitzer wanted to close Aqueduct Racetrack and make Belmont a year-round facility, according to Wikipedia. Those plans died when Spitzer left office, and the state’s enthusiasm for doing something with the property died with them. Recently, state economic development officials announced that they would accept proposals for use of the available land at Belmont.
That announcement triggered a proposal to build a new hockey arena there. The owners of the New York Islanders are committed to keeping the team in our area, but they don’t want to use the Nassau Coliseum, which is too small for a National Hockey League team. Recently, some local elected officials announced their support for moving the team back to the renovated Coliseum, but that’s a pipe dream.
So, what now? If the state were to approve the construction of a new arena at the Belmont site, there would be no question that the surrounding community and this region would benefit greatly. A new facility would mean local jobs, revenue for the area and a modernized Long Island Rail Road station. Local residents would have easy access to mass transit, and their daily commutes would be shortened. Tax revenue for the county and state would be enormous.
Local civic groups might register their disapproval, but like most of the not-in-my-backyard crowd, they rarely have any positive counterproposals. Generally, the opposition to any project either wants a park or is content to just say no. If the state decided to sell the land for housing development, the community would be faced with year-round traffic headaches and a drain on local resources.
At this point, the state has no option but to allow Belmont to be the new home of the Islanders. Both horseracing and hockey are seasonal, and there is no threat that the stadium would become a major entertainment venue with the Coliseum nearby. Hopefully the state will see the virtues of a new arena and the benefits it would bring. Otherwise, the Belmont land will be doomed to be Long Island’s largest parking lot.
Jerry Kremer was a state assemblyman for 23 years, and chaired the Assembly’s Ways and Means Committee for 12 years. He now heads Empire Government Strategies, a business development and legislative strategy firm. Comments about this column? JKremer@liherald.com.