Thursday, February 26, 2009
Posted by Nick at Thursday, February 26, 2009
After a too-long delay, I've finally gotten around to writing this up. This past Thursday, February 18, the Lighthouse Development Group hosted me and other bloggers for a new-media avail where they explained more progress on the project and answered our questions on many different issues. The following is a run-down of the answers we received:
Newsday is now pushing a story about the ability of Charles Wang, Scott Rechler, and the Lighthouse group to secure financing for the site. This has rightly created a lot of anxiety among proponents and opponents alike, and it's easy to understand. Credit markets are frozen now, and that's affected all of us - personally, American Express has drastically cut my credit limit and raised my interest rate even though I pay my bill on time and in full every week. There's no reason for us to be out here advocating for the project if once all is said and done there is no money to actually do it.
This issue came up during our avail last week. There is no financing currently in place for the Lighthouse Project, but this is largely due to two major reasons. First of all, the project will be built in phases over roughly 10 years, so the entire $3-4 billion will not be needed up front. Second of all, the final scope has not been settled with the Town of Hempstead. How could you secure financing for something without an idea of what the thing you want costs?
We received assurances that the project principals have met with all major banks to discuss financing for the site. Charles Wang and Scott Rechler are both very wealthy individuals who possess valuable assets, including assets in and around the site, and let's not forget that the Islanders and the Rexcorp buildings in and around the site provide equity that could be used in a potential loan negotiation.
Let's remember one other thing. The credit markets may currently be frozen, but we are not talking about ground-breaking for a period of time. The most optimistic timeframe according to SEQR has shovels in the ground within 6 months, and most estimates say that will occur either at the end of the year or immediately after next hockey season. It's unreasonable to expect the credit markets will remain in their current state for the next 6-18 months.
Blogger's Note: This is yet another attempt by Newsday to create a raging inferno out of smoldering brush. Do we need to begin asking ourselves if the Lighthouse Project has a Newsday problem? Expect more on this.
"What Took So Long?"
Many Lighthouse proponents have criticized the Town of Hempstead for its seemingly slow pace in moving the project forward. This criticism is not entirely justified, because the Town of Hempstead led us to the environmental review milestone faster than they ever have in the Town's history.
The Lighthouse group postulated that the main conflict came from different perspectives on the word "fast-track." Kate Murray promised to fast-track the Lighthouse Project, and by all accounts she and the town have kept that promise. Things may have seemed slow, but let me detour and give you a quick history lesson. I live close enough to the now-abandoned Bellmore Army Base that I used to hit baseballs into the property when playing with my dad. The base was closed in 1991, and after an environmental cleanup the Town, Army, and community reached an agreement to re-develop the site in 1996. It is now February 26, 2009, and the site is still an empty pit.
As the Lighthouse representative told us, "The Town of Hempstead measures fast-tracking with a calendar. We use a wristwatch." I can imagine there were a lot of shocked faces when the Lighthouse group handed the Draft Environmental Impact Statement on the same day. I believe Chris Botta summed it up well - Charles Wang is taking charge of the process, and expect the Lightouse Group to hand in all expected documentation in record time. This will keep the ball in the Town of Hempstead and Nassau County's court.
It usually takes a very long time for things to get done in the Town of Hempstead. Periods of time that may still seem like stalling to outside observers are, in fact, quite fast by Town of Hempstead standards. We need to understand this while simultaneously keeping up the pressure on them and sending positive signals about their quick movement.
Many opponents have defaulted to the traffic complaint when discussing the Lighthouse, and some proponents have also voiced concerns. First of all, it's important to remember that Charles Wang and Scott Rechler are the biggest business-owners in that area, followed closely by the colleges and museums. Why would they create a situation that would harm their own businesses? This is not the usual situation where a development group executes a project without having a large vested interest in the community.
Current plans include mass transit solutions like Bus Rapid Transit (BRT) from the Mineola Train Station and a trolley system to take people within the site. However, the Lighthouse group has bigger plans. The easements for Light Rail transit are included within the Lighthouse site, making it much easier to include that system later on. As I've mentioned before, the site was designed in a flexible way to make it easier to accommodate any chosen transit solution.
In addition, the Lighthouse group has been meeting extensively with the local New York congressional district - including Reps. Carolyn McCarthy and Peter King and Senators Chuck Schumer and Kirsten Gillibrand. There have also been meetings with Jim Oberstar, a man who could prove very valuable to this process. Mr. Oberstar is a congressman from Minnesota who chairs the House Transportation Committee. Next year, he will shepherd a 5-year transportation spending bill through Congress totaling about $400 billion. The Lighthouse group and the congressional delegation is very interested in making sure the area in and around the Lighthouse Project finally gets its fair share of government transportation money. Currently, New York pays far more to the federal government in taxes than it gets back in federal investment, and the Lighthouse is the kind of "shovel-ready project" President Obama has promised to make a magnet for federal money.
Blogger's Note: To all you NIMBY's out there who are planning to picket the Light Rail...I went to college in Boston. I lived directly across the street, in a 3rd floor street-facing apartment, from a Light Rail system (the MBTA Green Line) for 3 years. This is not the Long Island Rail Road we're talking about; these trains are whisper quiet and do not in any way interfere with your quality of life. The only time my quality of life was disturbed was when the MBTA thought it was a good idea to do station renovations, which included jackhammering, at night while people slept.
Second Blogger's Note: I am still working on a very large series discussing transportation options for the Lighthouse Project with a man who has forgotten more about mass transit in this area than most bigwigs at the MTA ever knew. He was not as far along as I thought the last time, and I'm hoping to have that for you next week, complete with Google Earth renderings and rough discussions on costs.
Charles Wang himself discussed the not-so-subtle move of playing an exhibition game in Kansas City. The Lighthouse group re-iterated Mr. Wang's stance that there are no current intentions or plans to sell or move the New York Islanders because they are committed to making the Lighthouse work. They said that the Kansas City invitation was accepted because the Islanders were offered a 6-figure appearance fee to participate. Since the Islanders lose money on every game played at Nassau Coliseum, it might make sense to take a six-figure profit for an exhibition game while sending a strong message.
Join us tomorrow when I will post the second part of this - discussing issues like Roosevelt Field Mall, construction renderings, the SMG lease, and the current lack of organized opposition to the Lighthouse.
I welcome your thoughts on this and other issues you'd like to see addressed in the comments section. As always, don't forget to sign the petition and pass it on. I welcome your feedback at firstname.lastname@example.org.