September 9th, 2009

Can Long Island Still Afford the Islanders?

Over at NHL FanHouse this morning, Chris Botta is reporting that six different municipalities, including both Kansas City and the New York City borough of Queens, are interested in becoming the new home of the New York Islanders.

I don’t doubt Botta’s sources and I don’t doubt his enthusiasm for the Lighthouse Project, the redevelopment plan that Islanders owner Charles Wang believes is necessary for the team to stay on Long Island.

I don’t doubt that keeping the Islanders where they are is what NHL Commissioner Gary Bettman wants too. After all, despite the team’s woes on the ice — they haven’t won a playoff series since 1993 — this is a franchise that won four Stanley Cups, won 19 straight playoff series and put five players, a head coach and a team executive in the Hockey Hall of Fame. Moving a franchise with that sort of pedigree is not a headache Bettman wants, especially if he wants to avoid larger questions about the financial viability of the NHL and other franchises.

And, finally, I don’t doubt that losing the Islanders would be a tremendous blow to Long Island’s civic pride. I should know, as I grew up about a 10-minute car ride from the Nassau Coliseum and rooted for that team as a child. When it comes to big media in New York City, they had little reason to report on anything going on in the suburbs on Long Island, but even the big shots in Manhattan had to pay attention to the region when the Isles were piling up Stanley Cups while the Rangers were well into their fourth decade of playoff futility.

But the question I haven’t seen too many people ask is whether or not the Lighthouse deal is a good one for the taxpayers of Nassau County, the Town of Hempstead and New York state. Yes, I’ve read plenty about how the project will create construction jobs and become a magnet for ancillary economic development. But as Will Leitch pointed out in his excellent piece over at New York about how there isn’t any reason to get rid of the Meadowlands, we always hear those arguments:

Giants Stadium cost just over $70 million (financed by bonds backed by state racetrack proceeds) in 1976. Many new stadiums are publicly financed by selling the myth—and it is a myth—of utility and profitability down the line.

The reality, on the other hand, is that building arenas and stadiums to support sports franchises are a luxury — and it isn’t obstructionist to ask whether or not it’s a luxury that municipalities can afford, especially in light of competing priorities during a serious economic downturn that has pushed government budgets at all levels to the absolute limit.

That’s not an idle question for me, as my entire immediate family still lives in my hometown on Long Island. While I was growing up there, it was impossible to go a few weeks without hearing my parents, neighbors and parents of my friends complain about the tax burden there, one that’s always been among the highest in the nation.

I’ll admit one thing: I don’t know the answer to that question, which is properly up to the local officials and taxpayers on Long Island.  In my heart, I hope they can get a deal done.  Unfortunately, my head suspects that paying the price to keep the NHL on Long Island might come at the expense of other public priorities.  Keep your fingers crossed.

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