A Story of Three Arenas: Of Sports, Money and Democracy

| August 1, 2011 6:00 AM

Nassau Coliseum, home of the New York Islanders. On August 1, the county will hold a public vote on whether to borrow taxpayer money to replace the aging arena. AP/Seth Wenig.

Why does the mixture of sports and building incite such furious debate?

The current dispute over whether to replace the aging Nassau Coliseum has elicited significantly more controversy than most big development projects, but that shouldn’t come as a surprise to Tri-state residents. Similar controversies have consumed the planning and construction of two other arenas in recent years:   Atlantic Yards’ Barclay Center in Brooklyn and Newark’s Prudential Center in New Jersey. MetroFocus looks at why these projects, which pit the public’s love of sports against its fear of economic waste and exclusionary political processes, continue to get built.

Athletics and democracy. The Roman Colosseum was built under emperors whose rule embodied dual elements of democratic and autocratic principles. Since then, public sporting events have been both democratic institutions, in which an athletic person from any background has the opportunity to rise to greatness , and as an anti-democratic political weapon used to divert the public’s attention away from government corruption.  Nothing seems to expose this push and pull between populist process and political sleight-of-hand like the building of a shiny new arena.

Gladiators on thin ice: Long Island. In May, Nassau County Executive Ed Mangano proposed replacing the Nassau Veterans memorial Coliseum, which was built in 1972 and is now the smallest arena used by the National Hockey League, reported Newsday. Now, Mangano and his supporters want to borrow $400 million from taxpayers to build the new arena. He has said that the economic risk of borrowing the money  far outweighs the possible alternative, which is the threat that the revenue-generating New York Islanders will leave Long Island in 2015 when their lease on the Coliseum expires. On August 1, the Nassau County  public will vote on a plan to borrow taxpayer money for the construction of a new arena.  What could be more democratic than that, one might ask?

Opponents of Mangano’s plan  have charged that holding the elections on August 1 — an unconventional  date for an election, when many Nassau County residents may be out of town or busy with summer events — is a dubious tactic designed to reduce voter turnout. Other critics, including the state panel overseeing the county’s $120 million deficit, claim that the pro-arena camp has failed to answer the public’s questions sufficiently and has been slow to reveal the detailed plans for how profits from the stadium would be shared. There’s also the concern that the project could ultimately fall through due to unpredictable setbacks, as did Nassau County’s ill-fated Lighthouse Project in 2009.

"The Rock," as Newark's Prudential Center is often called. Many of the development projects that were supposed to surround the arena have failed to come to fruition. Flickr/rubyswoon.

Where’s the “prudent” in the Prudential Center?: New Jersey. Similar worries over transparency in the political process and the possibility of funding flaws arose in Newark after the 2004 announcement of plans for a new $375 million home for the New Jersey Devils called the Prudential Center, reported the Star-Ledger. In 2006, a New Jersey court approved a financing plan for the arena, which involved using money designated a city airport lease. The plan blocked any public referendum on the project, and a group of Newark residents unsuccessfully tried to appeal the court’s ruling. The judge argued that a state law made it possible for the city to do whatever is “necessary and convenient” to complete large development projects.

Additionally, Newark used eminent domain to remove six businesses from the arena site. The Devils were supposed to reimburse business owners for moving expenses quickly, but those reimbursements took years to come through.

Newark’s Prudential Center wasn’t completed until 2007. And though an economic comparison between the Nassau Coliseum replacement and Prudential isn’t really fair — the Prudential Center developers could not have predicted the recession  – it still exemplifies what might happen to the arena Mangano hopes to build on Long Island. Economic development around the Prudential Center has been sluggish, and acres of parking lots now sit where there was supposed to be a park, a $60 million pedestrian bridge, new office buildings and multiple hotels.

Construction continues on Barclay's Center at Atlantic Yards. The arena is scheduled for completion in 2012 -- nine years after it was announced and after multiple schedule changes. Flickr/m_dougherty.

Forest for the Trees?: Brooklyn. The Atlantic Yards project is perhaps the most glaring  example of arena-mania bumping awkwardly up against the democratic process. The project began in 2003 when developer Forest City Ratner announced its plan to build a $2.5 billion development featuring affordable housing and a new arena that would bring the New Jersey Nets to Brooklyn. Since then, an organized opposition claims that a small group of powerful politicians teamed up with wealthy corporate interests to bypass the city’s public land review process and used illegal eminent domain procedures to force residents from their homes. Daniel Goldstein of the opposition group Develop Don’t Destroy Brooklyn has called the project “a corrupt land grab” and “a failure of democracy.”

Cheerleading the money tree. Like most big real estate development projects, prospective arenas are generally pitched to the public on the basis that they will create jobs — in the form of labor needed to build them and employees who will eventually work in them — generate tax-revenue and serve as an anchor for future developments, like restaurants and hotels. But, as Long Island Association President Kevin Law said about the Nassau Coliseum replacement, “Government doesn’t have a good track record when it comes to big projects in terms of initial estimates and ultimate cost.” Here’s how the Prudential Center and Atlantic Yards financial pitches played out.

    The fallacy of the economic  stick and carrot. 2004 Cato Institute report — “The Stadium Gambit and Local Economic Development” — says stadiums, even stadiums that bring a new team to a city, have virtually no economic impact on municipalities, despite the often-repeated claim that a new stadium will bring in jobs, revenue and fuel further development.  So why do municipalities continue to build? According to the Cato report, “franchise owners have used the threat of moving to another city to persuade state and local decision makers and politicians to provide them with lavish new stadiums and arenas at little or no cost,” as is currently the case in Nassau County.

    New York Islanders owner Charles Wang, left, and Nassau County Executive Edward Mangano smile as they leave the podium after a news conference at Veterans Memorial Coliseum. If a new arena is not built, the Islanders have the option to leave Long Island in 2015. AP/Seth Wenig.

    Even when questionable practices and claims are employed to do the job, getting a professional sports arena built is almost always a legislative, fiscal and logistical nightmare. But politicians may view the creation of a stadium under their watch as a milestone in their legacy. As Mayor Michael Bloomberg said of Atlantic Yards, “Nobody’s gonna remember how long it took. They’re only gonna look and see that it was done.

    The seductive immortality of competitive success. — David Foster Wallace

    For the love of the game. Part of the public draw for building arenas may have to do with what the late author David Foster Wallace referred to as “the seductive immortality of competitive success.” He theorized an innate human desire to witness the physical genius of professional athletes with one’s own eyes. Supporting Wallace’s belief, approximately 140 million Americans attended a professional sporting event in 2008, reported NPR.

    Minoan sculpture depicting the sport of bull-leaping, from the 15th century B.C. Public sporting exhibitions, whether played with ball or beast, have always been a component of civilization. Flickr/vintagedept.

    Public sporting exhibitions have existed at least since 2700 B.C., when artists depicted such popular events as “bull-leaping” and boxing, and there is an entire field of anthropology dedicated to studying the significant relationship between sports and cultural identity. There is a pattern across millennia and societies of people uniting in a common venue to watch live sports, but in the public dialogue over whether or not to build a new arena, this fact takes a backseat to improbable promises of financial boom-times ahead.

    • Renee

      Let Wang pay for it himself. Let him find other investers to help rebuild his business.

    • Greta m Rainsford

      Can someone tell me how the Islanders presence has enhanced Nassau County financially? I don’t see crowds gathered for their games nor do I see crowds for other events, save the circus (maybe). Mega TV sets and the cost of events have lessened public involvement

    • Martin L Kantor

      It is time to stop contributing to the dumbing-down of America. Enough money for sports’ and more for better schools and education.

    • john cougdhlin

      good to see some truth come out about building arenas for the developers and letting the taxpayers pay the price, they always over estimate the number of jobs created.

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