By Peter Schwartz
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As the Islanders get ready for their first season at Barclays Center in Brooklyn, their former home sits quietly back on Long Island prepping for a long-awaited facelift.
The Islanders played their final game at Nassau Coliseum on April 25, a 3-1 win over the Capitals in Game 6 of the Eastern Conference quarterfinals. A Game 7 loss in Washington signaled the end of the Islanders’ 43-year run at “The Barn” and reality set in that the team would next call Brooklyn home.
But ever since the Islanders announced in September 2012 that they would be relocated to the Barclays Center, there have been many people that have speculated that perhaps, if a new facility ever became reality, one day the franchise would return to Long Island.
Well, now that agreements with labor unions are in place, work on renovating the Coliseum will soon begin courtesy of Barclays Center developer Bruce Ratner.
After years and years of failed attempts to either renovate the Coliseum or build a new arena, a new building is on the horizon and one person in particular is keeping his fingers crossed that the Islanders will be back.
“I certainly do believe that we will see the return of the Islanders at some point,” Nassau County Executive Ed Mangano said during a recent exclusive interview with WFAN.com. “I think that this arena is going to be very attractive to professional sports.”
On Aug. 1, control of the arena shifted to Ratner, who promoted the final event at the “old” Coliseum, a Billy Joel concert on Aug. 4. The building is now closed and has been undergoing environmental studies in anticipation of the beginning of renovations.
Come December 2016, Nassau County will finally have a state-of-the-art arena that will host more than 250 events each year, as opposed to about 110 events a year at the old Coliseum.
“I’m thrilled that the Coliseum plan is moving forward,” said Mangano. “It’s the most important economic development project that we have here in the county and re-developing the hub which has languished for well over a decade.”
Nassau Events Center LLC, a subsidiary company of Forest City Ratner, plans on spending $260.5 million, including $91 million from Chinese investors, to transform the Coliseum and develop a retail and entertainment complex on the surrounding property.
Under the plan, the Coliseum will be downsized to 13,000 seats. Though that would not be enough to host an NHL franchise, there is room for expansion down the road if needed.
“The footprint of the arena is not changing,” Mangano said. “The seats can be added back in should they be necessary to accommodate a future Islander commitment to the Coliseum.”
Even without the Islanders, a new Coliseum is still important for the community. While the building is closed for renovations, Long Island residents will have to travel to other venues in Brooklyn, Manhattan, or even New Jersey to see sporting events, concerts, and family shows.
When the Coliseum re-opens, it will once again become a destination for a variety of entertainment options. It will make a positive economic impact on the county. Had the arena simply closed and torn down, it could have had a catastrophic impact on the region.
“It’s an important venue for our county,” Mangano said. “Many of the people that attend the Coliseum also patronize local restaurants and that creates economic activity and it supports jobs well beyond the Coliseum property.”
The first event in the new Coliseum is expected to be a University of Kentucky basketball game in December 2016. The arena is also expected to host college basketball and hockey, boxing and a minor league hockey team, possibly the Islanders’ AHL affiliate, the Bridgeport Sound Tigers.
The agreement between Ratner and the county includes the return of the Islanders to the Coliseum for a total of six games a year, including two pre-season games. There has been some speculation as to whether or not the NHL will allow it, but Mangano believes it will happen.
“They’re obligated under the contract, but beyond that you have to fulfill the terms,” Mangano said. “The arena itself will have to pass an inspection to see if professional hockey can be played there, so there is another step and that step would be the inspection and approval at the time that the Coliseum is completed.”
While the Islanders will be playing their home games in Brooklyn, they are still going to have a presence on Long Island. Owner Charles Wang won a bid to buy Twin Rinks at Eisenhower Park out of bankruptcy and that will become the team’s official practice facility and business offices.
“Nassau County fans will have an opportunity to interact with the Islanders right here in Nassau County,” Mangano said. “There will be a number of open dates for fans to interact with the players at practices, scrimmages and autograph sessions.”
The Islanders’ future could have played out a lot differently had they been able to strike an arena deal with both the county and the Town of Hempstead. The Islanders tried for years to get the “Lighthouse” project approved. That would have included a renovated Coliseum with other development on the surrounding property.
But the Islanders’ fate on Long Island was sealed on Aug. 1, 2011, when Nassau County residents voted against a public referendum to build a brand new arena.
Admittedly, that was a tough day for the county executive.
“Clearly I expressed my profound disappointment that the bond referendum failed that would have kept the Islanders here,” Mangano said. “While I was profoundly disappointed that it failed and meant the loss of the Islanders, I think that we picked up those lemons and made lemonade here and in the future you’re going to see something that all of our residents will be very proud of.”
That something is the new Coliseum that is finally on the horizon. Mangano also continues to hope that the Islanders will find a way out of their 25-year lease at Barclays Center and return to Hempstead Turnpike.
“It’s going to be a wonderful facility,” Mangano said. “The fan base is here as well as strong corporate support here on the island for a professional sports team. We’re going to continue to not give up that hope. We understand the reality right now.”
The reality right now is that the Islanders will be doing everything on Long Island except play their home games. Those will take place on Atlantic Avenue in Brooklyn. But with a new Nassau Coliseum becoming a reality, perhaps the Islanders will someday prove a famous saying to be true.
You can go home again.
Don’t forget to follow Pete on Twitter @pschwartzcbsfan. You can also follow Mangano at @edmangano. For renovation updates on the new Nassau Coliseum, follow @barclayscenter