The Untold Story Behind the Coliseum Referendum

News12 and Newsday play critical, daily roles in our community… but never has this responsibility been so visibly abrogated since these organizations merged, than during the Coliseum Referendum campaign.

The News Of The World scandal brought to light some of the more salacious dealings of Rupert Murdoch’s Fox News Empire. But as attention-grabbing as reports of phone hacking were, citizens of the UK were perhaps more shocked and ashamed by revelations that a cozy relationship had developed over the years between high-level government officials—as far-reaching as Scotland Yard and Prime Minister David Cameron—and executives from News Of The World, Murdoch’s now-shuttered tabloid.

A flurry of inquiries into the matter illustrated an almost symbiotic bond between Murdoch the man and government officials desperately seeking his approval. As much as an anathema as this is to purists in either journalism or the public sector, the fact is that media magnates have always curried favor with political leaders and well-funded private interests have unfortunately always had a penthouse suite in the fourth estate.

Less notably, to the outside world, Long Island itself has been besieged by our own local conglomerate in Newsday/Cablevision; one that quizzically evaded the scrutiny of the Department of Justice when it formed and is serving us its own unique brand of partisan influence, though political ideology appears to have little to do with it.

Long Islanders have come increasingly and unwittingly under the influence of Cablevision’s invisible hand as both News12 and Newsday play critical, daily roles in our community. To be sure, outlets such as the Press, local community weeklies and newer entrants such as Patch.com, have leveled the playing field to an extent; but never has this responsibility been so visibly abrogated since these organizations merged, than during the Coliseum Referendum campaign.

BILLION-DOLLAR BATTLE

It was a story we planned to report, though it was not originally slated for our cover position. As the debate intensified and details of the project were being hastily, yet relentlessly thrown out from all sides, Michael Nelson, the Press’ Editor In Chief, decided upon a group assignment for the story. There were simply too many questions, too much posturing and too little time for one writer to pen a comprehensive piece. (CLICK TO VIEW COVER STORY)

This was a billion-dollar proposition. Those don’t come along every day.

All sides of the issue were pitted against one another and trading vituperative remarks, the most colorful ones coming off the record I can assure you. Former allies turned enemies. Civil discourse was abandoned almost from the start. Moreover, ideology was completely discarded as the Nassau Republican Party and the Nassau Democratic Party appeared to have switched sides somewhere along the way like a bad Hollywood “Mom-wakes-up-in-daughter’s-body” movie. Jay Jacobs, the Democratic leader, was vilifying taxes and union labor supported infrastructure spending while Republican County Executive Edward Mangano was proposing to increase taxes almost the same amount as the home energy tax he repealed; a campaign promise that, quite frankly, got him elected.

Charles Wang and Ed Mangano’s relentless public relations and advertising blitz to encourage the passage of the Coliseum Referendum had the very opposite effect on the pubic. The very thought that Nassau would undertake such an enormous taxpayer-financed project against the backdrop of a country raging against government and high taxes—and at the height of the debt ceiling debate in Washington—inspired an over-taxed population to draw its own line in the sand. But that’s not the most interesting, and tragic part of what transpired during this campaign.

Our cover story, “On Thin Ice,” scrupulously detailed every aspect of the proposed development absent any hyperbole; we also took care to represent every side of the issue equally, concluding that while the details of the plan as presented were shaky at best the decision was an emotional one because the Coliseum played an important role in Long Island’s history.

Newsday’s coverage couldn’t have differed more.

HOW NEWSDAY COVERED IT

With one week to go until voters would be asked to decide whether or not to allow the county to issue a $400 million bond for the Coliseum, Newsday ran a photo of Charles Wang on the cover of its Sunday edition, the most widely circulated paper of the week. The headline read, “Wang and the Arena.” It was billed as “an interview” though it ran in the lead news position and spread over three pages. The interview, conducted by veteran reporter Ted Phillips, was formatted as a news story rather than an interview as it quoted both Wang and Michael Picker, Senior VP of the Islanders, and carried several paragraphs of analysis. This is an important distinction, because a proper news format should have carried opposing viewpoints to the Coliseum plan, particularly since the piece relied on more than just Wang’s interview. Only there were none.

Perhaps these were observations that only other members of the media or opponents of the plan would recognize, but after speaking with a Newsday staffer on the condition of anonymity, this murky piece came into focus. It was full of “unchallenged statements and assumptions,” claimed the staffer, who followed bluntly with, “quotes from the other side were cut.”

Newsday, it seemed, was in the tank for the referendum. Any questions regarding this assertion were, in my mind at least, answered one week later.

On Sunday, July 31, the day before the referendum, proponents of the Coliseum redevelopment plan issued a torrent of positive information regarding the plan in Newsday. Both the Islanders and the Steamfitting Industry Promotion Fund took full-page advertisements encouraging Nassau residents to “Vote Yes.” The news section carried a two-page “Q&A” on the Coliseum with a picture of the proposed rendering with a caption that read “Courtesy of New York Islanders.” The rendering had appeared seemingly out of the blue, with no attribution other than who supplied it. No architect, no engineering firm. Nothing. For Newsday to accept this rendering without questioning the source or viability of it was incredible.

Once again, the so-called answers in this piece were barely vetted or questioned, instead offering a snapshot of the opposing sides. As they had done the week before, Newsday accepted what was given to them at face value, even though just a few days prior the Press’ cover story highlighted critical errors and inconsistencies in the same reports. Conspicuously absent from the July 31 issue was an Op-Ed piece from the Association For A Better Long Island (ABLI) submitted a full two weeks prior, which Newsday held and decided not to run. But the most stunning part of the newspaper came on the Editorial Page.

VOTE YES

To fully appreciate the July 31 editorial, it is helpful to understand that Newsday’s honeymoon with the Mangano administration was short-lived. Consistently the Newsday Editorial Board and its columnists have chastened Mangano on several issues ranging from his ongoing feud with the Nassau Interim Finance Authority (NIFA) to his choice of key staffers and deputies. They have relentlessly hammered his fiscal agenda and the County Executive has responded defiantly along the way. This is why the Editorial titled “Vote yes for a new arena” was entirely anachronistic.

The editorial settles the financial argument by claiming that the worst-case scenario of the bond would be a $58 increase on homeowners’ tax bills and the best case is a profitable scenario that would “mitigate future property tax increases.” Nowhere in their calculations did they factor in the potential cost to commercial taxpayers, who pick up a greater share of the tax burden, thereby concluding: “So, $58 per year. That’s less than it would cost a family of four to travel to New York City to see an ice show, a boat show or a circus that they won’t see near home if the deal fails.” To paint the picture that $58 per year, per household was the worst-case scenario would be laughable if it wasn’t so troubling.

The remainder of the Editorial is a virtual press release for the Islanders. It offers a few minor hurdles, essentially admits that residents won’t have a full picture of the project and closes with “voters ought to get the process started by saying YES on Monday to sow the seeds for a vibrant and growing Nassau County.” Ignoring for a moment that the language and logic of the Editorial indicate that it was authored by a third-grader, the Editorial Board offered its full support for a non-binding referendum on a $400 billion bond by a county Newsday has positively excoriated for not paying its bills, laying off workers and ignoring a growing structural budget deficit.

STRANGE BEDFELLOWS

Newsday was once a very good paper, and at times it still is. But its tacit endorsement of the Coliseum plan in news coverage such as the Phillips piece coupled with the outright support of the Editorial Board, suggests something is rotten in Denmark. Despite the fact that the Islanders appear to have spent a sizeable chunk of advertising dollars and that the Nassau Coliseum is entirely wrapped in an Optimum Online banner, this is more than the obvious advertising pay-to-play scenario.

What no one addressed at Newsday or News12 is that both the Islanders and Cablevision are controlled by two of the wealthiest individuals on Long Island. And their affiliation goes far beyond advertising.

Perhaps the disclaimer that should have appeared in Newsday’s coverage of the referendum is the best way to characterize their relationship:

Newsday’s parent company, Cablevision, owns Madison Square Garden and the New York Rangers, a competing venue to the Coliseum and archrival of the New York Islanders, respectively. It is considered one of the greatest and fiercest rivalries in sports, resulting in increased ticket revenue for both organizations. According to Forbes, Cablevision reportedly pays the Islanders $15 million annually (nearly 25% of the team’s annual revenue) for broadcast television rights on a contract written through 2030 provided the Islanders remain in the New York marketplace. According to the NYS Board of Elections, Cablevision was one of County Executive Edward Mangano’s largest financial donors in the first half of 2011.

I am in no way insinuating that Cablevision/Newsday and the Islanders were conspiring to maintain a financially beneficial arrangement between the two organizations by issuing propaganda, omitting certain key details in news stories, relaxing reporting standards and pumping campaign dollars into the account of the local political leader. I’m merely suggesting that such a disclaimer would have been useful information for the reader.

Nevertheless, a crazy thing happened in spite of the efforts put forth by the above parties. The referendum failed. Badly. In the end, the outcome may have been less about the opposition from the development community spearheaded by the ABLI or the sniper attacks from the Democrats, and more as a result of simple voter awareness inspired by Mangano and the Islanders. Ironically, had Islanders owner Charles Wang and the Republicans left well enough alone and favored a quieter, more traditional Get Out The Vote (GOTV) campaign, their chances might have increased dramatically. Instead their aggressive campaign served only to wake the anti-tax giant in many Nassau residents and the proposition failed.

Though not on the scale of the News of the World ignominy, the failure to influence the outcome of the Coliseum referendum should be a lesson to the Cablevision and Newsday executives. The pen may indeed be mightier than the sword, but not if it is filled with invisible ink; both your adversaries and your followers will see right through you.

Coliseum Casino: Let It Ride

It amuses me to no end that we can build a refuse-burning facility with a Garden City address down the road, but a casino with a hotel, sports arena and convention center threaded by a coordinated transit hub that connects local retail and commerce is a non-starter.

Foxwoods Casino. Oh no, this just wouldn't do. Too pretty for Long Island. Next!

There is a renewed hullaballoo surrounding the proposed Shinnecock casino at the current site of the Nassau Coliseum. A deserved hullaballoo, I might add. The very thought of a casino in the middle of our bustling, albeit struggling, suburban landscape inspires clamorous debate among the many stakeholders that exist in relatively tight quarters. Even lame duck Suffolk County Executive Steve Levy is quacking about building a casino at his beloved Yaphank facility claiming that it’s better suited further away from Nassau County residents.

Unfortunately, it will be a cold day in hell before Long Islanders in either county have a say in the matter. People you have never heard of in positions you didn’t know existed will never allow a casino to be built this close to New York City because it would potentially devastate the interests of the people they represent from upstate New York, Connecticut, Atlantic City and Las Vegas. I offer this, not to quell your enthusiasm but to issue a gauntlet of solidarity and self-determination: either we all get behind this, or we drop it from the start.

So let’s have a debate among ourselves. Long Islander to Long Islander. But allow me to establish some ground rules. First, take the emotion out of the ensuing discourse by recognizing that while there is no magic elixir to cure our financial illness on Long Island, Nassau County in particular, we must not allow ourselves to be constrained by classic NIMBYism. There’s nothing wrong with thinking big. Conversely, big thinking doesn’t always ensure positive outcomes. But the only journey that guarantees failure is one that never begins. Taxpayers can no longer afford pusillanimous behavior from elected officials who acquiesce to a vocal minority. (Yeah, I’m talking to you, Huntington! Oops. Getting emotional. My bad.)

Further, in order to have a proper discussion we must move past the question of legitimacy; that is, whether the tribe has the right to construct a casino on this parcel. For the purposes of examining the potential impact of this type of development, let us assume that it is within their right to strike an agreement with the government to build on this property. Lastly, the only other stipulation I entreat you to heed is to refrain from casting racially motivated aspersions toward members of the Shinnecock Nation. It detracts from the merit of the debate.

Here are my assertions. Let the debate begin.

If you build it they will come. A casino nestled within such a populous community has the potential of being the largest-grossing casino in the nation. Factor in the public transportation access to this area from New York City residents and this is an irrefutable fact. The impact upon the local economy would be seismic. According to a 2008 study published by the Taylor Policy Group of Sarasota, Fla., the estimated impact of the gaming and related industries of the Seneca Nation in western New York is $820 million annually. The study places this figure in context by stating that “the impact of the Nation exceeds that of the [Buffalo] Bills and the [Buffalo] Sabres combined and approaches that of the SUNY Buffalo campus.” This project would create thousands of sustained jobs and provide badly needed work for the local trades, generate healthy revenues to the Long Island Power Authority and local municipalities, and have an incredible halo effect on the travel, tourism and hospitality industry.

A casino would not create a seedy culture. This particular assertion is hotly debated. Casinos conjure up images of mafia hoods and prostitutes. Never mind that you can already gamble in dozens of OTBs, buy lottery tickets on every corner, find a hooker making the rounds in industrial parks, or get a happy ending at any number of corner massage parlors. The moment a high-priced call girl takes up residence on a casino barstool looking for an out-of-town businessman in a leisure suit with a name badge, our puritan alarm sounds and the torches and pitchforks come out. I’m not condoning the use of escort services, but merely pointing out our collective hypocrisy with respect to our view on what’s acceptable and where. Prohibiting this illegal indulgence is far more manageable than scouring Craigslist and cracking down on neighborhood massage parlors.

This actually is the best location for a casino. The modern casino is part of an extensive array of business and cultural services. They tend to be aesthetically pleasing (think Wynn, not Trump) and boost the viability of a convention center, sports complex and entertainment arena. If a gaming operation was paired with a family destination nearby (think Great Wolf Lodge), imagine the combined economic possibilities of family and business travel. I might also remind everyone that Roosevelt Raceway was a gigantic gambling facility. It amuses me to no end that we can build a refuse-burning facility with a Garden City address down the road, but a casino with a hotel, sports arena and convention center threaded by a coordinated transit hub that connects local retail and commerce is a non-starter.

This development would ease traffic. Yup. I said it. The amount of money generated by a full-fledged hotel, casino and convention operation with a family amusement center would fund the long-desired transportation hub between the railroad, Museum Row, and the local shopping destinations. It’s all right there; you just can’t get there from here at the moment.

The Islanders are worth fighting for. This team stood by Long Island for decades. Hell, they even looked pretty good at the end of this season and their prospects for next year are even better. This is our only professional sports franchise. Like I said, the Islanders are worth fighting for.

Hofstra would benefit greatly from this development. Hofstra University is emerging as the largest and most vocal detractor of this project. This is completely understandable given the fears gambling inspires. The two most salient points the University is making are that college kids shouldn’t have this type of access to a gambling establishment and that its proximity will have a deleterious effect on the school’s image from the perspective of parents considering sending their children to the school.

First of all, kids are gambling online and addicted to video games. This will be the addiction cross to bear for this generation. As for the perceptual aesthetic and moral issues of a peripheral gaming establishment, it’s hard to imagine the current “approach” to the University being any worse. I love the Hofstra campus but the immediate surroundings, including the dilapidated coliseum, leave much to be desired. Hofstra is a serious stakeholder that would and should be able to ask for the sun, moon and stars when the infrastructure is fully developed here. President Stuart Rabinowitz has done more to enhance the reputation of this institution, from which I proudly hold a degree, by hosting the Presidential debate, building a medical school and improving the overall academic standing of the school. Hofstra is already bigger than its environs and will continue to be so for decades to come, casino or no casino. Besides, you tell me which option sounds worse to a parent in Nebraska with a child considering a top-notch school in New York:

(A) Columbia University in Harlem,
(B) Fordham University in the Bronx, or
(C) Hofstra University on Long Island.

By now, I’m confident several of you vehemently disagree with these assertions. I welcome your commentsbelow and look forward to continuing the conversation.

With that, let the games (of chance) begin.

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