Last chance for Islanders? Arena plans rest on Aug. 1 vote

UNIONDALE, N.Y. -- The New York Islanders' lease at Nassau Coliseum doesn't end until 2015, but there's been concern about the franchise's future for some time now. And for all that worry and for all of Islanders owner Charles Wang's attempts to put together a deal to satisfy everyone involved in approving an arena concept, it will all come down to a county-wide vote on Aug. 1.

On Wednesday morning -- inside a Nassau Coliseum packed with politicians, local business and union leaders, and hundreds of union workers and Islanders fans -- Wang, Town of Hempstead Supervisor Kate Murray and Nassau County Executive Ed Mangano announced a $400 million plan for a new arena project that would also include a minor league baseball stadium on the grounds of nearby Mitchel Field Athletic Complex.

Over 3,300 construction jobs would be created, which brought the union workers in attendance to their feet numerous times with chants of "Build it now!" The plan would also see a Shinnecock Indian Nation casino, formerly proposed to be on the site of the Coliseum as part of a different plan, moved to Belmont Park race track.

The new arena would hold 17,500 for hockey, 1,250 more than the Coliseum's current capacity.

The bond referendum will be voted on by Nassau County residents on Aug. 1 and if approved, the deal would run through 2045 with construction on the project beginning in 2012 right next to the Coliseum. Revenues generated by the new complex would help pay off the $400 million total that's to be divided with $350 million going towards the arena and $50 million towards the minor league stadium.

Newsday (sub. required) broke down the voting process that will take place before and after the Aug. 1 date:

A simple majority of the 19-member county legislature would first vote to decide whether to put the referendum on the ballot. If the plan is approved by voters in August, the legislature would vote again, requiring 13 votes to approve the bonding.

If the referendum passes, the county would begin a request for proposals process to bid out the construction of a new Coliseum, a project that could begin next spring and finish before the 2015-16 hockey season, Wang and Mangano said.

At least one Islander has been through this kind of drama before, and he said the players have to do their part in this renaissance.

Defenseman Mark Eaton was a Pittsburgh Penguin when that franchise was in the same holding pattern about its future as the Islanders are now. He was there when the Kansas City rumors were non-stop and he was there when Mario Lemieux walked out onto the Mellon Arena ice in March of 2007 to announce a new arena deal to keep the team in Pittsburgh.

To him, the players have to do their part to help support the excitement around the plan to help re-energize the fanbase again.

"It's more important for us to put the product on the ice and to give the fans something to be excited about," said Eaton. "I think the second half of this year fans have got good reason to be excited and then throw this news on top of it, I think the fans of the Islanders should be really excited right now. This is for them. They deserve it. They've stood behind this team for a long time."

When the puck drops next October on the 2011-12 NHL season, Islanders fans will know where the future of the franchise lies. After a promising second half of the season and the anticipation of the Aug. 1 vote, Wang and GM Garth Snow have the opportunity to continue the good vibes by having a successful off-season in the free-agency market, beginning with Calder Trophy nominee Michael Grabner, who's due a new contract.

If the vote happens to fail, it's not the final nail in the coffin for the Islanders keeping their home on Long Island ... but the lid will be just about shut.

Meanwhile, doors of opportunity will swing open in other cities that yearn to have their own NHL teams, forcing Wang to seriously begin exploring his options after stating numerous times he's committed to keeping the team here.

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