Having grown up in Elmont, Jason Dasrath said he has seen his community slowly deteriorate. Gone are the old restaurants and grocery stores of the 1990s, which have been replaced by fast-food eateries, 99-cent stores and gasoline stations on Hempstead Turnpike. Dasrath, 39, said there hasn’t been anything new in Elmont for years, but he believes all that could change with the proposed Belmont Park Arena, future home of the New York Islanders.
“This development offers attractions, resources and opportunities for Elmont,” Dasrath said. “Right now, we have to leave Elmont in order to see a movie or go shopping, but we can have all that with the Belmont project.”
The project’s opponents have been vocal, but Dasrath contends there is strong local support for the development, which prompted him to start the “Elmont Supports the Arena and Megamall” Facebook group. With nearly 200 followers, it has become one of the largest groups supporting the planned arena.
The project is to include a 19,000-seat arena, more than 7,000 parking spaces, a 250-room hotel, movie theater, community center, commercial office space and 435,000 square feet of retail space. It will also include millions of dollars in renovations for Elmont Road Park, which has long been neglected.
Dasrath and other arena supporters see the development as a way not only to bring out-of-towners to shop in Elmont, but also to keep locals from spending their money elsewhere. Paul Sapienza, president of the Elmont Chamber of Commerce, added that the arena project could also attract new businesses wanting to capitalize on the additional traffic flow.
Subhed: The fear of losing out
Sapienza, who owns the Sapienza Bakery on Hempstead Turnpike, said there used to be tens of thousands of drivers on the streets in the 1960s and ’70s, when horse racing was at its peak at Belmont Park. With the racetrack no longer drawing the daily crowd that it used to, except on the day of the Belmont Stakes, Sapienza said he worries that the community would lose out if the arena project were to fall through.
“No racetrack has survived in the U.S. without a supplemental business alongside it, and the arena and retail center would be a great [addition] to the area,” Sapienza said. “If it’s not this development, I’m worried about what might be proposed next, if anything at all.”
Residents also said they believe the development at Belmont could help curb the number of young adults leaving Elmont by fostering civic pride in their hometown and offering employment opportunities. Empire State Development officials have said that about 3,000 permanent jobs would be available at the redeveloped Belmont, and businesses at the site would be urged to hire locally. John Johnson, a long-time Elmont resident, said that the jobs at Belmont would be perfect for teens and young adults looking to make money and burnish their professional credentials.
Subhed: The opposing view
“These jobs are stepping stones for bigger and better things,” Johnson said, “and with [the] minimum wage going up in New York, this would be perfect for our kids to earn some income.”
Nassau County Executive Laura Curran and Town of Hempstead Supervisor Laura Gillen, both Democrats, have given their official nods to development. Still, opposition continues to gather.
Bruce Blakeman, a Republican Town of Hempstead councilman, sent out a letter in May to express his concerns about heavy traffic congestion on the Southern State and Cross Island parkways and Hempstead Turnpike as a result of the project.
“Although, technically, the proposed development is not in my district, I’m concerned about the deleterious impact this project could have on the communities I represent in Elmont, Floral Park, Franklin Square, Garden City South, North Valley Stream, Valley Stream and West Hempstead,” Blakeman wrote. This was the first time that Blakeman, who is up for re-election in November, publicly stated concern about the project.
Town Councilman Thomas Muscarella — also a Republican whose district covers the area, and who was appointed to the seat last month after the resignation of former Councilman Ed Ambrosino — agreed. He said he believes the scope of the arena project is too large, and could be detrimental to the local economy. Thomas Tweedy, who is running against Muscarella for the seat as a Democrat in November, also expressed opposition to the current arena project, and had previously fought against the proposed casino at Belmont shortly after being elected mayor of Floral Park mayor in 2011.
Several residents have said New York Arena Partners must create a viable transit plan that includes a full-time Long Island Rail Road station at Belmont to move ahead with the redevelopment. So far, developers have secured only two trains, which would run from Jamaica to Belmont.
The trains are expected to accommodate up to 2,280 arena patrons for weekday events, and 1,330 for Saturday events. If the Islanders’ first game attendance at Belmont were to mimic the nearly 14,000 who attended their return to the Nassau Coliseum on Dec. 1, it would mean that less than a tenth of fans would be able get to Belmont by train, with the rest taking local roads and parkways.
Empire State Development officials said developers are still in “positive talks” with the Metropolitan Transportation Authority to secure more trains for events at Belmont. They added that the final transit plan, along with a completed environmental impact statement, should be released in late May or early June.