By Mark Hallum
The New York Islanders are moving back to Nassau County with a new arena that will benefit fans in both Long Island and Queens.
Gov. Andrew Cuomo made the announcement at Belmont Race Track with singer Billy Joel; Howard Zemsky, commissioner of the Empire State Development Corp.; and a small group of Islanders fans Wednesday.
“To me today is personal. I grew up in eastern Queens just a few miles from here,” Cuomo said. “The Islanders were the Long Island hockey team, that’s what the Islanders were… When they left and went to Brooklyn, Long Island lost something. It was sad because they were so much a part of the identity, the culture and the character of Long Island… They left a hole in the heart of Long Island.”
The Islanders moved from Long Island in 2015 to begin playing at Barclays Center, because of an expiring lease at Nassau Coliseum and financial trouble, which Cuomo said was a strain on fans from outside the city and from Queens. The Islanders have the worst attendance in the NHL.
The new stadium will hold 18,000 fans and will be situated in Elmont adjacent to the horse racing track on land currently occupied by an underutilized parking lot near the LIRR station. The project will create 12,000 construction jobs and 3,100 permanent jobs while requiring a state investment of about $1 billion, according to Cuomo.
The partnership awarded the development project will break ground in 2018 to finish in 2020.
A 435,000-square-foot retail center is expected to go along with a hotel and other amenities.
“Today is a win, win, win,” Cuomo continued. “It is a win for the community; big economic development initiative that’s going to utilize this great asset that’s been under utilized for years… It is a big win for the fans, because it is much easier to get here than Barclays Center… and it is a win for the team.”
Cuomo said the state is appealing to the National Hockey League Commissioner Gary Bettman to allow the Islanders to play at the Nassau Coliseum while the new venue is under construction. The Islanders played at the Coliseum from 1972, when the team was founded, to 2015.
Meanwhile, the LIRR is undergoing rapid upgrades to better serve sports fans at the Belmont station, such as the LIRR Expansion Project, which will add a third track to the 9.8-mile stretch of Main Line between Floral Park and Hicksville.
The Belmont station will see more regular service compared to current schedules which only make stops during race season.
All seven street-level crossings along the Main Line corridor will be eliminated. These upgrades will be complete without having to acquire any residential properties, while sound walls will be built to minimize the impact on surrounding homes.
“The island is coming back, and that’s why the Islanders are coming back,” Islanders co-owner Jon Ledecky said. “Growing up in Queens, I am excited the Islanders will have a new address in the 11003, Elmont, N.Y.”
Barclays was poor fit for the Islanders with not enough space for a regulation rink and the team failed to resonate with Brooklynites.
Originally signing a 25-year lease at Barclays Center, Brooklyn Borough President Eric Adams showed little remorse over the Islanders leaving.
“There’s only one Brooklyn team for Barclays Center and that’s the Brooklyn Nets,” he said. “We wish the Islanders well on their journey to Belmont.”
Major League Soccer’s New York City Football Club originally put in a competing bid for an open-air soccer arena, but lost out to the NHL.
Zemsky said Belmont hold significance for the New York sports history for the Secretariat’s Triple Crown victory in the early days of the race track’s history.
Reach reporter Mark Hallum by e-mail at mhall