(Blogger's Note: I didn't doctor this picture at all. Google "Al D'Amato - this is apparently a real picture of former Sen. D'Amato)
I remember back to the bad old days of 1996-1998, when I was a young Islanders fan who just wanted to see his team get a new arena. I may not have been as business-oriented as I am now, but I knew that other teams were getting new buildings and the Islanders would probably need one too.
I remembered reading some kind of a political puff piece that spoke about how the will was there to get the Islanders a new building, and that it would happen in short order. I don't remember who said it - could have been former owner John O. Pickett, could've been a commentator, could've been former County Executive Tom Gulotta - but there is one sentence I remember loud and clear, that summed up the Islanders' favorable position: "It all starts with Al D'Amato in the Senate."
Many have whispered since this blog's inception that Mr. D'Amato was pulling the strings for some unseen political opposition to the Lighthouse Project. I never saw it, and the former Senator was rarely mentioned save for a Newsday article that claimed a falling out with Charles Wang as a result of Mr. Wang's refusal to hire D'Amato's brother, Armand.
That's all changed as of yesterday, when Mr. D'Amato took to the pages of the LI Herald to criticize the Lighthouse Project and advocate the casino fantasy as a workable solution.
Unfortunately for Mr. D'Amato, there are some holes in his logic. This in particular is my favorite:
In my opinion, in today’s economy, [a casino on the Coliseum site] makes a lot more sense than the previously proposed Lighthouse Project. For six years, real estate developer Charles Wang, the majority owner of the New York Islanders, has been pressuring elected officials from the Town of Hempstead and Nassau County to authorize this $3.7 billion project.Mr. D'Amato is a savvy politician, and he is carefully framing this issue in a way that is, in my opinion, not accurate. Nassau County voted in 2006, by a margin of 16-2 (with current County Executive Ed Mangano in the majority), to name the Lighthouse Development Group the developers of the Coliseum site, fulfilling a vision put forth by former County Executive Tom Suozzi. Politicians at all levels, from Gov. Paterson to both U.S. Senators to every member of the Long Island congressional delegation (except for my representative, Peter King), have come out in favor of this project. It is also supported by a record number of citizens.
The Town of Hempstead, according to numerous sources who were familiar with the negotiations at the time, has refused to meet with the Lighthouse to discuss their vision for the site since 2003, citing conflicts of interest that were never there. This position is of course made more laughable since the Town has now "jump-started" the Lighthouse process and is working on its own competing proposal. It has long been a position of those opposed to the Lighthouse that this is Charles Wang's whim and he is desperately fighting to get elected officials to buy into his vision. The facts, including initial conception by Tom Suozzi and prior approval by Nassau County, do not support this assertion.
D'Amato cites the colleges directly adjacent to the Coliseum property (Hofstra University and Nassau Community College) as reasons why the Lighthouse Project should not be built, using the classic bogeyman of traffic. This would be fine, if not for the fact that a casino would likely bring in more traffic at less regular times of the day. In addition, as my friend B.D. Gallof reported last week, Gamblers Anonymous has reported large spikes in gambling addiction among college-aged Long Islanders, an issue that would almost certainly be exacerbated by having a large casino literally a stone's throw from college campuses.
To make matters more interesting, D'Amato acknowledges the need for mass transit at the site even if a casino is built, thus provoking the same opposition from communities such as Garden City who would seemingly prefer nothing done with the site than a light rail coming within 300 feet of homes. In addition, unlike the Lighthouse Project, which is positioned to be an economic catalyst for the region, casinos are largely self-contained and usually result in property values dropping between 10-20% in the surrounding areas. I can't imagine a scenario in which the neighbors would stand for this. Mr. D'Amato calls the casino "creative," but let's get real: casinos are the cheapest revenue grab in the book for a government. Mangano's proposal betrays a stunning lack of creativity and a surprising tone-deafness for the needs of the area.
Mr. D'Amato also fails to acknowledge his own role in the current state of both Nassau Coliseum and the Islanders. D'Amato is the person who engineered the arena deal with SMG, a deal widely regarded as the worst in sports history, that has bled the County and the Islanders of millions of dollars since its signing. Mr. D'Amato is also the person who convinced hockey neophyte Charles Wang to purchase the Islanders, citing fan passion and the guarantee of a new arena/Coliseum land development to offset the costs. It's disingenuous to suggest Mr. D'Amato is merely a concerned observer in this process.
The former Senator also trotted out one of the more popular Town of Hempstead talking points (which is only fitting for a former Town Supervisor): financing...namely, Charles Wang's supposed complete inability to obtain it. This has been a major talking point since the beginning, with the issue of potential financing from China brought up with sneering derision at the 9/22 re-zoning hearing.
First off, this is a simple economics issue. As a friend who works in finance told me, Charles Wang could not be blamed for spurning banks that would not provide financing in favor of banks that would. In addition, why would Charles Wang continue this farce if he wasn't able to gain the financing to do the project? Why did a source tell me Scott Rechler was incensed at the news of the casino "plan"? Why isn't the Lighthouse more openly seeking other options? Why are people connected to the project continuing to insist that things are still on and they are waiting for the Town's response? It doesn't make any sense.
There's a first time for everything....I agree with NHL Commissioner Gary Bettman on the financing issue. If the Town is so convinced that Charles Wang is bluffing and can't get the financing, Green-Light the Lighthouse Project. Make the Lighthouse prove that they can come through, and place the burden of the project's ultimate success or failure squarely on the shoulders of Wang and partner Scott Rechler.
Interestingly, these aren't my biggest issues with Mr. D'Amato's self-serving piece. I'm far more concerned with the fact that the former Senator did not disclose information that could help readers better understand his position. First of all, Mr. D'Amato did not disclose his previous relationship and subsequent falling-out with Charles Wang, something that could absolutely influence his position on the Lighthouse.
There are other interesting connections. Mr. D'Amato is Chairman of a pro-poker special interest group called the Poker Players Alliance, which seeks to "protect the rights of poker players." The former Senator is also reported to have paid Ed Mangano a visit in the County Executive's office around the time of the casino announcement, and representatives from D'Amato's lobbying firm, Park Strategies, have been actively involving themselves in this issue. Given this information, I think it's fair to ask whether Mr. D'Amato's advocacy for a casino stems from something in addition to the reasons he laid out in his piece.
In the same vein, sources continue to whisper behind the scenes of a deep connection between Mr. D'Amato and the Shinnecock Nation. We have not been able to confirm or deny these rumors, but they persist, and I will continue to search the back channels for information. It's important to determine whether the former Senator is merely a concerned citizen, or whether he would stand to gain more deeply from the approval of a casino.
We have truly entered the silly season now, with odd pieces of information percolating from all sides. Charles Wang and the Lighthouse continue to be silent, ceding the floor to a suddenly-silent Town of Hempstead and a Nassau County that seems to be living in a state of suspended reality.
Once again, Long Islanders in general, and Islanders fans in particular, are becoming pawns in a tit-for-tat between political and business forces with their own interest. Mr. D'Amato's self-serving op-ed represents his first true emergence from the shadows and adds him to the silliness that is emanating from Ed Mangano of late and the Town of Hempstead since, well....forever.
Long Island will lose if we leave these individuals in charge of our future. We are and should be the final voice for these matters, and we must take a stand to re-assert our belief in the Lighthouse Project, our rejection of this casino fantasy, and the ultimate potential of Long Island's future.