The Upcoming Islanders Referendum & the Devils' Support

There's a rather important referendum about to take place in Nassau County on August 1.  The vote is to determine whether to support funding for a new arena in the county to eventually replace Nassau Coliseum or deny it altogether.  

It's not really a Devils-related issue, as much as it is Islanders-related, but I think it's important for Devils fans to be aware of the situation.  It's a lot messier than just a simple vote on whether to build a new arena.   After the jump, I attempt to summarize the situation as well as explain why I believe the Devils organization has come out in support of the referendum.

Let's start with the current arena: Nassau Veterans Memorial Coliseum.  Built back in 1972, it's seen far better days. The concourses are notoriously small, upkeep is expensive with all the repairs that are necessary due to age and use, and the arena itself is quite small at sitting 16,250 people.  The Islanders organization doesn't own the arena or the land that it's on, they are renters to the county and they have a lease with them until 2015.

Charles Wang, the owner of the Islanders, would very much like to keep the Islanders in Long Island, but needs a new arena to do so.  He's offered plans - most notably the Lighthouse Project in 2004 and another in 2007 with the town of Hempstead - in past years that involves building a new arena, only for it to be denied or cut down in some way or form years later.    It's easy to say that Wang should spend his own money entirely and build a new arena, but that's not feasible in this case because he has to go through Nassau County to get the land to begin with, have it zoned, and provide permits for building.  You can't demand a team owner to do something they're not able to do.

Meanwhile, Nassau Coliseum has degraded with the Islanders remaining as their main tenant.  Should the Islanders choose move elsewhere when their lease is up, then Nassau County's left with an increasingly out-of-date and broken-down arena with no major sports team as their tenant to provide any tax revenue.  It's going to cost them significant amounts of money just to tear it down much less try to keep it up with no sports team. It can be done - just look at the Izod Center and the NJSEA in the Meadowlands - but given that Nassau County is mired in debt, I'm not quite sure how that would make sense for them.

Of course, with this being a local political issue, there's a lot of ancillary issues from both sides that will come into play regardless of their feelings about Nassau Coliseum or the Islanders.  It could be used to "send a message" to whoever's in power that they're not happy; or vote for the arena just to support "their guy."  I'm not going into the particulars of Nassau politics because that's not really the point (and we're not going to get into that here). What is the point that the Islanders are on the brink of existence in Nassau County.

From what I understand, this referendum is pretty much the last chance at getting support for a new arena.  And it's a long shot, at that.  Nassau County has been mired such awful spending problems that there's an organization designed to better control their spending: the Nassau Interim Finance Authority.  The county is essentially in debt and had to suffer cuts, making the proposal to spend money on an arena understandably more difficult to swallow.  Even if the vote is "yes,"  and the local legislature approves, the NIFA may turn around later on and not approve any funding.  The hope is that a strong turnout and a majority decision in favor of the arena would pressure them to approve it later down the line.  It's not a guarantee.   A "No" vote on the referendum means the issue is pretty much dead and Wang will probably look elsewhere for an arena.  There are certainly local options (e.g. Willet Points in Queens is undergoing development, an arena for hockey could be built there) as well as getting out of the area entirely (e.g. Kansas City, Quebec City in 2015?).

There are reasonable and logical arguments for both sides; but from an Islanders' perspective, it's either to have a shot at staying or to seal the fate that they'll move. Should you support them, then you're going to want to vote "Yes" on August 1.   It's a more crucial situation than the concerns overZach Parise signing a one-year contract, that's for sure.

So. Let's go back to the Devils. Why should we care? 

Well, the Devils have made a public statement of support, as reported by Tom Gulitti on Friday.  You may find this a bit strange as one would think that having one less hockey team in the market would help New Jersey. On the contrary, the Islanders going elsewhere may hurt the Devils more so than help it. With the Islanders leaving, that's one fewer local rivalry which has been good for the gate in past seasons. Sure, the Islanders have been bad and New Jersey will be doing what they can to make 2010-11 an aberration; but the Isles possibly going elsewhere is bad for business unless their move is just to NYC.  It is from this perspective that it would be in New Jersey's best interest to support the arena vote. On top of that, it also doesn't hurt the relationship between both teams to show some solidarity, especially with the CBA ending next September.   This is likely the same reason the Rangers, their hated rivals, have done the same last week. 

Then there are the fans caught in the middle. Sure, they can vote and they better on August 1.  But unless Nassau has more diehard Isles fans than I think they do, they're really at the mercy of the larger public's opinion.  Don't get me wrong, there's a considerable fanbase in Long Island. A fanbase that turned out about 5,000 for a rookie scrimmage earlier this summer.  A fanbase that has undergone and survived a lot of pain between a fraudulent owner in John Spano, the many errors of Mike Milbury, and a franchise still trying to get back the postseason in an arena that could be literally falling apart some day among many other hardships.  It's a laudable fanbase despite who they support; and they're not going to switch to the Devils if the team leaves the metropolitan area.  It wouldn't surprise me if they gave up hockey altogether. 

The Isles fans have been through enough, haven't they? I think so. I'm admittedly sensitive to this plight because I still remember how uncertain the Devils' own future in New Jersey looked in 1995.  It wasn't nearly as close as it seemed; and the Isles' situation is much more pressing and real; but it's a feeling no fanbase should have to endure.   Therefore, I'm very sympathetic to the "Vote Yes" crowd; even though I can't make a difference since I don't live in Nassau. So I hope the referendum passes and with enough support to at least convince NIFA that there's a significant level of support.   I admit, if I did live there, I may have a completely different opinion on the matter since it's not my taxes or local government that will be effected by the vote.

Anyway, that's my summary of the situation as I understand it and why I believe New Jersey supports of the referendum.  For additional reading, I recommend this compliation of opinions on the issue by James O'Brien of Pro Hockey Talk; this article by Katie Baker at Grantland is worth your time as it looks at the issue from the larger perspective of Long Island along with the team's history in mind; Chris Botta's prediction about the referendum is sobering and further emphasizes the need for the turnout to be strong as well as the vote itself, and if you want to know how Islanders fans feel about it. Lighthouse Hockey has you covered.  They are partisan in favor of the vote - and they have to be if they want their team on Long Island. 

Regardless of how you feel about the referendum, if you're in Nassau County, please go out and vote tomorrow.

As far as something more Devils-specific, don't worry, there will be goaltending analysis tomorrow.

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