Friday, March 11, 2011

Don’t Roll the Dice on the Nassau Coliseum Area

(Originally published in Newsday on June 11, 2010.)

Seventy-seven acres of cracked and crumbling concrete, in the geographic center of the county, remains one
of the best hopes for our region’s economic future. Known for years as the Hub, the aging Nassau Coliseum and the parking fields surrounding it can become an economic engine to power a renaissance in sports, entertainment, education and business development.

Within a mile of more than 50,000 students and scholars – from educational institutions such as Hofstra University and Nassau Community College, as well as numerous public and private preschool through high school institutions – this area represents both the diversity and promise of Long Island. The challenge is to create synergies with top-rate office space, government offices in Mineola, world-class shopping in Roosevelt Field, a transportation center in Hempstead and Museum Row, all within a few short miles of each other.

The Hub offers one of the few places in our county with the physical space and location where an exciting mix of business, entertainment and housing could become a model for the next generation of suburban development. Next to the new Hofstra University School of Medicine in partnership with North Shore-LIJ Health System, with ties to the Feinstein Institute for Medical Research, this area could spur innovative biotech and high-tech companies, create a cluster of economic development and bring long-awaited high-paying jobs to Long Island.

Research, and the economic and social benefits that come with it, could flourish here. This is the promise and vision of the smart growth that we’ve long discussed and that’s within our reach.

Yet, in an effort to close a fiscal shortfall, Nassau County Executive Edward Mangano is quite literally rolling the dice by proposing to build a gambling casino here, in a transaction with the Shinnecock Indian Nation. According to news reports, the tribe is expected to receive federal recognition this week and is reviewing several casino sites across Long Island. [Editor’s note: The tribe received federal recognition in October 2010.]

Mangano asserts that a casino would, in the short run, help plug the county’s growing deficit and create some jobs, and might be a destination for people from outside of our area.

While I don’t doubt his sincerity, this is a highly speculative venture at best. Beyond losing the opportunity to create a sound mixed-use development, even the short-term benefits of this plan come with new expenses and new problems.

The county executive’s proposal also fails to consider the compatibility of a gambling casino and the other possible uses at the site. Is a family attending an Islander game going to consider the casino an attraction? Would an office or residential development consider the casino to be complementary? Certainly one could foresee the casino driving away these and other potential valuable uses here.

A casino at the Hub would not necessarily draw tourists in the same way that Mohegan Sun or Atlantic City, with their natural benefits, already do. More likely, the casino would attract local residents – including some of the students less than a mile from it. As universities across the nation strive to educate students about the dangers of binge drinking and problem gambling (behaviors for which college students are at higher risk than the general population), it is hard to imagine a less appropriate location for a casino than immediately adjacent to a university and community college.

The effect on the local quality of life, including alcohol use, crime, traffic, noise and gambling addiction, would likely be problematic. Still unexplored are the additional costs that a casino would bring, including the increased police and social services required to ameliorate the negative impacts of a gambling establishment.

As for economic impact, money spent in a casino is less likely to be recirculated and to benefit the local economy than if the space were used for other types of businesses. A casino run by an organization from outside our county will, for the most part, siphon money out of the region, once you get beyond some service-industry jobs and the tax the county collects.

The development of the Hub has been the subject of debate for years. We’ve all witnessed the many ideas and plans brought forth, and we’ve heard a variety of civic and business interests and voices speak out on the economic, social, traffic, zoning and environmental impact of the extraordinarily complex mixed-use development proposals.

But many people are unaware that the building of a casino by a federally recognized tribe would, for the most part, circumvent the public processes that have precluded development so far. It would, for example, be exempt from ordinary zoning requirements, including public hearings and the State Environmental Quality Review process. While the pace of approvals for the Hub has been frustrating, we have all – from private citizens to institutional stakeholders – had the opportunity to voice support or opposition. Such input is invaluable. If the state approves the development of a casino at the Coliseum, we would be almost completely robbed of the opportunity to voice our concerns.

I have long been an advocate of the development of this area and, specifically, the comprehensive mix of entertainment, retail, business and housing development proposed in the Lighthouse project or other proposals with similar mixed uses. I continue to advocate for development that will make life richer for all of us.

This area is our best hope for the transformation of Nassau County. Over the next decades, it could be the center of economic development and innovation, the home of intergenerational housing, and renewed and exciting entertainment options. The question is whether we continue to advocate for such smart growth and economic development, or settle for the short-term revenue, and long-term problems, of a casino?

One hopes that someday, in the near future, Nassau will solve its budget woes by way of sound, structural reform. The county, Long Island and New York deserve a project at the Hub that will make our region a better place to live – not only for us but for future generations.


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