As if Monday's rejection by Nassau County voters of $400 million in funds for a new arena complex wasn't painful enough, the New York Islanders had to suffer the indignity of hearing that their months-long public relations campaign resulted in a turnout that was called "abysmal" this afternoon and "very low" in the Associated Press's postmortem on the referendum.
The votes were still being tallied when the AP called it as a "no" but the gap was significant. For all the rallies, all the public pleas, all the dire warning from Charles Wang about the potential loss of both jobs and this hockey franchise without a taxpayer-funded arena, more voters who rejected public funds for the Islanders showed up at the polls than supporters of the project.
With 71 percent of the vote counted late Monday, the vote was about 57 percent to 43 percent against borrowing the money through a general obligation bond to pay for the plan, which also called for a minor-league baseball park and convention space. The results marked an enormous defeat for Charles E. Wang, the owner of the Islanders, who had sought a new or refurbished arena for nearly a decade.
"I have to tell you I'm disappointed, and to put it very bluntly, I'm heartbroken," Mr. Wang said. He said he would not discuss his next move.
Mr. Wang could sell or move the National Hockey League team, which began play in 1972, the year the Nassau Coliseum opened. Mr. Wang, who has owned the Islanders since 2001, had said construction on the project would begin next June. The Islanders' lease with Nassau Coliseum expires in 2015. He said after the defeat, "We will honor our lease."
Check out Leahy's pre-vote rundown of the Islanders' arena issue for context.
This is going to be portrayed as apathy towards the Islanders — oh, who are we kidding, it already has been — but to quote a certain Big Mac-lovin' ex-President's campaign: It's the economy, stupid. We've just had two weeks of budgetary Armageddon playing out on 24-hour cable news channels, and a several years of economic gloom.
Would the vote had been different if the Islanders hadn't been so inept in the last several years? Would the turnout have been different if there was palpable, not potential, massive fan enthusiasm surrounding a burgeoning contender?
Yes and yes, but different tallies don't necessarily mean a different outcome for a taxpayer-funded arena facility. Not in this economy. Not with those property taxes.
So what does this mean for the Islanders?
From the Islanders, here's Charles Wang's full statement on the defeat:
Before I briefly speak on today's disappointing referendum vote for creating a destination location, growing the job market, creating new revenue streams and being a catalyst for positive change for Nassau County, I first need to thank all of my employees and interns who worked tirelessly on the phones, interacting with commuters at the train stations, and walking the business streets of our communities.
Ed mentioned many different groups that put forth a tremendous effort and, without repeating every name or group, I would just like to thank you too.
I would like to offer a special thank you to Jim Castellane and John Durso and their members for their amazing efforts pounding the pavement and making phone calls to promote this project so their significant labor employment issues could be addressed.
Finally I would like to thank my friend, County Executive Ed Mangano, and his staff for getting out the facts so the residents of Nassau could make an informed decision.
I'm heartbroken that this was not passed. We're disappointed that the referendum pertaining to the arena was not voted by the people of Nassau County as being a move in the right direction for growth. I feel that the sound bites ruled the day and not the facts. Right now, it's an emotional time and we're not going to make any comments on any specific next steps.
We're committed to the Nassau Coliseum until the year 2015 and like we've said all along, we will honor our lease.
We now have a season to concentrate on with a team that is bursting with a young core of talent sprinkled with the right mix of veterans. This combination will bode well for the last 4 years of our lease. We will continue to bring the best possible concerts, family shows and exhibitions so Long Islanders can enjoy the events and keep their hard earned dollars in Nassau County.
Training camp opens next month so hockey is right around the corner. I can't wait till the puck drops at our home opener, October 8th at 8pm. Come out and watch us play. Let's go Islanders. Thank you.
While Wang wouldn't discuss the future, others have. From Chris Botta at NYI Point Blank, on Wang and County Executive Edward Mangano:
Mangano and Wang could still try to work out a different deal with legislature and see if NIFA will approve it. Or perhaps finally, for the first time since he bought the team eleven years ago, Wang will publicly dance with other municipalities.
... I'm very, very sorry for the Islanders organization and its loyal fans. There is no question that everyone who cares about the Islanders did the best they could to help with the referendum. Once again, this story is far, far from over. I would still suggest keeping the faith and I believe the Islanders will remain in the New York area — with Nassau still the leading contender.
One thing is for sure, before anything else: the failure of this referendum is not our failure, it is that of the powers that be, who simply allowed themselves to get out-maneuvered by anti-tax/anti-spending zealots, a disgustingly opportunistic Democratic Party chairman, and a morally bankrupt developer lobbyist who somehow managed to get himself presented as a dispassionate and concerned citizen. In hindsight, for the reasons Joe Conte outlined on Saturday, we might have never had a chance.
What does this mean for the Islanders and their future in Nassau County? The picture is clouded.
What does this mean for Nassau Coliseum? It will continue to be a shameful reminder of the complete and utter failure of anyone on Long Island to get anything done.
What does this mean for Nassau County? The NIMBYs win again, and Long Island sinks a little further into the ocean, but they're all on their decks preening about what a beautiful place it is.
As previously stated, the Islanders are in their lease until 2015. (For those screaming "QUEBEC CITY HERE WE COME!" tonight, do you really think there's a chance in hell they won't have a tenant for that arena by the time the Islanders' hourglass is up?) This vote is a door emphatically slammed shut, but not the end of the hallway.
If Wang wants an arena, he can still fund it privately. If he wants to sell, there will be suitors to keep the team local. (Maybe E can hit up Vinny and Drama for petty cash, make Turtle the official tequila distributor at the Ari Gold Arena.)
If Wang wants to sell to someone looking to relocate … well, Gary Bettman was an Islanders fan as a young lawyer. And when Gary Bettman's motivated to keep a team in a city, then that team doesn't leave Glendale … er, Uniondale.
I don't believe the New York Islanders will leave New York. But there's no question their future's a hell of a lot cloudier now.
The irony of course being that on a cloudy, confusing night, a Lighthouse is what usually guides a creaky vessel to safe harbor. If only Charles Wang had built one.