Now, a special comment on the Lighthouse Project and the decision that now risks losing them everything for which they claim to fight.
From the beginning, the Lighthouse Project promised something fresh and new for Long Island: a future containing badly-needed apartment housing, mixed-use communities, and a fresh perspective on the suburban concept we pioneered with Levittown many decades ago. The developers, Charles Wang and Scott Rechler, sought to deliver Long Island from the backward thinking that has paralyzed our economic progress and seen us search for an identity since Grumman left, taking the last vestiges of Long Island's aerospace industry with it. Outreach meetings were held, plans put out in the open, and dissenters both engaged and challenged. This active engagement led to near-record levels of support for the project, and a passionate turnout among supporters that in many ways motivated the Town of Hempstead, which expected the idea to simply fade away, to take the thought of this new island dream seriously.
Community activists who had been clamoring for this type of development for years were suddenly joined by casual observers and, in some cases, Islanders fans, some of whom merely supported their team and wished they could spend more time talking about the intricacies of the team's power play. Despite many events being largely jersey-free, fans delivered, coming out in force and ensuring that many public hearings had over 90% supporters in the audience. Nobody can say these folks did not go above and beyond their duties.
This support level culminated on August 4, where all speakers in favor of the project were greeted with thunderous applause, including Mr. Wang himself. It appeared, at long last, that a new day was dawning.
The wheels began to fall off during a re-zoning hearing filled with grandstanding on the stage and acrimony in the seats. Some Lighthouse consultants seemed unprepared to answer even basic questions, and the project presented some numbers, such as new vehicle trips to the region, that seemed a stretch at best. Some within the project, and their enablers in the blogosphere, took up the cause and railed against the Town of Hempstead for doing something that is both largely kabuki theater and completely normal for a hearing of that type. Dissenting voices, which are far outnumbered in the general populace, began to feel emboldened.
Then, it came, like a swift punch to the stomach, as I sat in a business conference in Midtown Manhattan: a report from the Long Island Press claiming the Lighthouse Project had been abandoned. Anxious fans vented on blogs – some even calling or texting me to beg for any information (of which I had none). Faced with this report, the Lighthouse Project made the biggest in a string of mistakes: it sat on a statement denying the report until almost noon the next day – a full 19 hours after the report first surfaced. It seemed, to many, to be an insult to those who volunteered their time and energy to push for this project out of nothing more than ardent belief.
Since this incident, the Lighthouse has gone into complete media blackout, refusing to speak to anyone on the record for nearly 2 months. Tom Suozzi, the main cheerleader for the Lighthouse Project, seemed to forget that running for a new term actually involved running, and he fell victim to an orchestrated tax-based revolt led by Ed Mangano of Bethpage. Suddenly, the entire equation has been thrown into flux, with all players needing to adjust to this new reality.
The silence has motivated many to go digging in places that may have otherwise been left alone. Randi Marshall of Newsday reminded us that other developers would want to step in should the Lighthouse fall by the wayside, a fact that seemed to encourage opponents who now believed they had an effective counter for the "If not this, then What?" attitude of many supporters. Many sources began to raise questions about Mr. Wang's ability to gain financing and his conduct, with the Long Island Business News naming him one of the political losers of 2009. B.D. Gallof uncovered a bombshell on Hockey Independent, hearing from a source familiar with the negotiations that the Lighthouse Project owed F.P. Clark, the environmental consultancy, over $200,000, had stopped payments, and refused to back off of estimates that have been roundly criticized, claiming traffic estimates must be sound because the state signed off on them. I followed up on a tip and discovered tens of thousands of dollars in campaign contributions to incoming County Executive Mangano since Election Day, all coming from either large developers or groups connected to prominent politicians. This seemed to momentarily put a jolt into some political operatives, since a Republican source was quick to alert me that Newsday tweeted about Ed Mangano's key supporters being pro-Lighthouse in the aftermath of this revelation. Reports are flying that the Town and the developers are far apart on a proposed reduction in scope, with sources and bloggers close to Mr. Wang pushing a 10% reduction and some connected to the Town floating numbers closer to 35%. Even in light of this string of revelations, including some that threaten the very viability of the Lighthouse Project, the developers have said nothing.
Meanwhile, the very hockey fans that formed a motivated core of support (though did not turn out in force for the election) are beginning to fracture under the weight of uncertainty. Some believe it would be most helpful to argue over new options, such as Brooklyn, a project that appears to be breaking ground in the immediate future, as Fast Company magazine reported today that traffic detours are being put in the neighborhood (though it would require new plans if it were to accommodate a hockey rink). There are also rumblings about Willets Point in Queens, which recently closed a Request for Qualifications (RFQ), an initial step in what will not be a quick and painless process. Opponents have become even more brazen, seeking to cheapen the goals of the Lighthouse and boil something that was never just about hockey to an issue surrounding a hockey team. General consensus seems to be that the Lighthouse Project is dead, merely waiting for some merciful soul to call time of death.
This is why enough is enough. Mr. Wang, you and your group must step out of the Cone of Silence and back into the work that got you to this place to begin with. Yes, the Town of Hempstead has made many mistakes, showing its arrogant handling of large development projects, and some of their complaints have been petty. However, you, a man who should know how to "play the game," have made your own share of mistakes; one source connected to the Republican Party told me you didn't even bother to call and congratulate Kate Murray on her electoral victory. It may seem like a small gesture, but it would have taken 3 minutes, at most, and sent a major symbolic message. Your behavior does not look judicious, it looks like a genuine slap in the face to the thousands who have fought with and supported you in any way they could – from the thousands who signed petitions to people like The Sign Man, who stayed up all night with his family before the October 3 deadline to make hundreds of pro-Lighthouse signs.
To make matters worse, your silence has led you to lose complete control over the public discourse. The days of Katrina's official blog, which offered near daily updates on the goings-on in the Lighthouse world, seem to be at least on hiatus, as it has not been updated in 5 weeks. Opponents who feel emboldened by election results that were predictable (I don't think anyone genuinely expected Kate Murray to lose this election based on a decision she hasn't even made and against an opponent who barely campaigned) and seem to have forgotten their minority status are suddenly turning loud, claiming that this was all a whim on your part, Mr. Wang, and done out of pure greed, not necessity mixed with business sense.
I say this with as much admiration and respect as I can muster, sir: I admire you for building a business from nothing into the Fortune 500. As a person working on a business idea myself, I can currently only hope for that level of success. That having been said, you do not come off looking very intelligent now. I understand your reluctance to negotiate through the media, sir, and nobody is asking you to do that. I am asking you to talk to us, to acknowledge our sacrifice in support of your dream that we have made our own. I am asking you to see this project through and force the Town of Hempstead to, if nothing more, actually vote on and own the outcome of this sorry state of affairs. To get this far and not even progress to a vote, well, that would be a horrible shame.
More than anything else, Mr. Wang, we are asking you to be honest with us. If the project is dead, tell us – I'll shut this site down tomorrow and continue working on the cause of my life. If there is a deal in another location, at least begin to tamper expectations.
Mr. Wang, after all we've done for you, communication is not much to ask. End this media blackout, give the Lighthouse side of the story, and restore the other side to a debate that has become little more than vultures picking at an imaginary corpse.
Speak up, and tell us: Are you committed?
Yes, or No?
Good night and good luck.
(Special thanks to B.D. Gallof for letting me use his "Cone of Silence" Photoshop)