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Can a Hockey Arena Survive Once the Hockey Team Moves Out?

Posted August 22, 2013

The soon-to-be former home of the Islanders may have a second life after all, even without a major league sports tenant. Forty-one-year-old Nassau Coliseum was the second-oldest active arena in the NHL, and the site has faced many contentious redevelopment debates in the past decade. In 2004, Islanders owner Charles Wang proposed a sweeping revamp. The "Lighthouse," as the project was called, would have included offices, residences and hotel space. That project was killed by Hempstead's town supervisor and zoning board, citing the "size, scope and character" as major issues. So Wang put together a scaled-down plan that was put to referendum in 2011; its construction was dependent on Nassau County borrowing $400 million. That failed, too, and Wang announced in 2012 that his team would be moving to the new Barclays Center, 20 miles west in Brooklyn, by 2015. Forest City Ratner, the group that built Barclays, just won the rights to redevelop the Nassau Coliseum (Nassau County Executive Edward Mangano chose the proposal over a competing bid from the Madison Square Garden company). Bruce Ratner, who owns Forest City Ratner, has said he expects the renovation to cost $229 million and that it won't require public funding. In addition to shrinking and revamping the actual building, Ratner plans to build theaters, restaurants, a bowling alley and green space on the surrounding land. Currently, these immediate surroundings exist as a vast sea of surface parking. While the new deal, announced last week, sounds promising for Nassau County, the histories of arenas after they lose their major sports tenant are rarely good. Andrew Zimbalist, a sports economist at Smith College, told Bloomberg Businessweek that he "can’t think of a situation where it’s worked, where an arena that lost its teams was re-established as a vibrant arena." The same Businessweek report sites a 2011 report by the Nassau County comptroller that states the Islanders accounted for more than half of the Coliseum's attendance in 2010. In nearby Meadowlands, New Jersey, the Izod Center (former home of the NHL's New Jersey Devils and NBA Nets) still manages to survive, for now, on concerts and events since losing its two pro sports tenants in 2007 and 2008. But Izod's calendar shows weeks between scheduled events, a far cry from the busy and profitable fall, winter and spring that comes with hosting both an NHL and NBA team (81 combined game nights a season, not including playoffs or preseason). Many similarly aged arenas around the country faced demolition once newer facilities in the region took away their pro sports tenants, including those in Dallas, Miami, Pittsburgh, Philadelphia, and Landover, Maryland. But Nassau Coliseum won't be losing the Islanders completely, at least that's what the developers are saying now. Forest City Ratner hopes to land the Islanders' minor league team (currently in Bridgeport, Connecticut) as a permanent tenant. And the developers also say the new, improved, and smaller (the renovation includes reducing seating capacity by 5,000) Coliseum will host six regular season Islanders games a season. The arena will be redesigned by SHoP architects, who also designed the Islanders' future home in Brooklyn. The new, curvy facade of the Nassau Coliseum aims to reflect the area's romantic imagery, including Long Island's sand dunes, beach fences and boardwalks; (things not necessarily synonymous with uber-suburban Uniondale). The arena currently generates about $2.6 million in revenue per year. The new owners of the site guarantee the county about $195 million over the life of the new 34-year lease, paying $4.4 million in rent annually while also taking on about $4 million in arena maintenance and utilities the county currently is held responsible for. The project still needs to be officially signed off by the Nassau County Legislature and the Town of Hempstead. With the promises of no public subsidy, unlike the last attempt to save the site in 2011, and a brief statement of approval from town supervisor Murray, a staunch critic of the Islanders' initial proposal to redevelop the arena, it appears more likely than ever that the aging arena can finally begin its new life.