Once upon a time, there was a military airport right in the middle of Nassau County. It was called Mitchel Field, and there may be a few of us left who can remember the roar of P-47 aircraft taking off from and landing on a patch of land in Hempstead and surrounding areas. Mitchel Field was an important facility during two wars, but eventually, its close proximity to dense population — and a near catastrophe when a plane crashed into Hofstra’s Barnard Hall in 1943 — forced the facility to close in 1961.
Because it became surplus property, the federal government gave the land to Nassau County for its use. Over a period of years, the county accepted proposals for redevelopment, but once the politicians got into the act, there were charges of underhanded dealings and long-term sweetheart leases. Happily, all of those leases and land deals have ended, but today what was once a potential site for major change pretty much stands out as a hodgepodge of commercial uses.
The Nassau Veterans Coliseum opened in the late 1960s and never reached its full potential, with much of the land around it still a massive parking lot. For a long time, the facility was in the hands of a promoter who was never able to attract events that would keep the lights on more frequently. Efforts to break the contract failed. Now, after almost 50 years of municipal bumbling, the county is finally on the threshold of creating a new Nassau Hub. If handled properly, this vast tract of land could become a major venue for a county that hasn’t seen much excitement in years.
To her credit, County Executive Laura Curran has aggressively sought reputable developers to turn the Hub into something special for the region. RXR Realty Company, which has millions of square feet of commercial properties, has been designated to undertake the renewal of the site. The company surely has the access to capital and the smarts to do the right thing. The question is, what will the Hub look like when it’s finished?
At this point, a new facility owned by the Memorial Sloan Kettering Cancer Center is near completion on Hempstead Turnpike, and Northwell Health has announced that it will build a research center near the Zucker School of Medicine at Hofstra/Northwell. Recently, RXR announced that it would create a walkable space, which will hopefully bring large numbers of visitors to the Hub for its sights, sounds and meaningful attractions. How the space is used will be the key to whether this long-awaited dream was worth waiting for.
There are plans for two new hotels, assuming they can be profitable, as well as some housing, but the Hub site will need innovative concepts to make Long Island residents want to flock there. Skating rinks and bowling centers attract families. Unique food facilities have proven to be successful, too, as long as they don’t look like the typical franchises that you see in shopping malls. IMax theaters also offer a special place for exciting experiences.
The proposed reimagination of the Hub is probably the last and best chance for something to happen on this 70-plus-acre site. Where else in Nassau County can you find this large a tract of land that has access to highways and mass transit? It’s true that there are massive areas of land in Brookhaven and some other Suffolk County towns, but no one has yet come up with any ideas for how those tracts can be developed into destinations for residents and visitors of all ages.
No one with a background in government wants to utter the phrase “now or never.” But if the latest dream for the new Nassau Hub fails, there may never be another opportunity like this one. I hope that the people who are paid the big bucks won’t let us down.
Jerry Kremer was a state assemblyman for 23 years, and chaired the Assembly’s Ways and Means Committee for 12 years. He now heads Empire Government Strategies, a business development and legislative strategy firm. Comments about this column? JKremer@liherald.com.