Belmont Arena Lawyer Norman Siegel Interview

Recently, I had the opportunity to interview Norman Siegel. Siegel is the lawyer representing the Belmont Park Community Coalition. This coalition is fighting to prevent the construction of Belmont Arena, the future home of the New York Islanders. They are the leading group against the proposed arena. Mr. Siegel was hired onto this case as he has experience in fighting against major arenas, and he was a leading advocate in the opposition of the Barclays Center in Brooklyn. Even though the arena was eventually built, he helped delay the project by more than eight years.

Why are you opposed to Belmont Arena?

There are many reasons. History shows that large scale development projects including arena and stadiums disrupt life and the adjacent communities, while upsetting the environment. You have to look at how much direct public money is being invested in the plan, how much tax subsidies are being involved with the plan, how much the plan is upsetting communities. When you take a look at the process so far, the Empire State Development (ESD), sent out a draft scope in preparation of an environmental impact study. They have to do this by law and they talk about how they’re going to benefit the neighborhood and the communities. They committed to seeking community input; but the draft is highly specific concerning some matters, is avoiding details in relation to the community input.

I asked the question if what if the majority of residents in Elmont, Floral Park, Melrose, etc. believe that the new home for the Islanders should be Nassau Coliseum, what happens if the majority of the people don’t want the arena? What will the Empire State Development group do? It raises the question of who decides what is best for the community. Does the community decide that? Does the state of New York? Or does the New York Arena Partners (NYAP) decide what’s best? Who makes this decision? We believe that the residents of the surrounding areas have the right to do that. They know best about what will benefit the community. The community knows what’s best for the community and they haven’t been given the adequate opportunity to give input.

Second, the draft scope talks about meaningful participation of women, minorities, and disabled veteran owned businesses. There are no goals or timetables for the proposed hirings. Are they going to be well paying jobs? Is the goal ten percent, fifteen percent, twenty-five percent? There is a lot of cynicism about the rhetoric which does not manifest itself. The plan and looking at plans all across the country, arenas and stadiums.

Finally, they (ESD) say the proposed project will not have any direct displacement of businesses or people. They don’t talk about indirect effect and what goes on around the country when these types of arenas are built. This projects produce indirect effects, or something called secondary displacement. It exists in neighborhoods and residences; the small mom and pop shops are no longer there. The residents begin to disappear as well. Those are some of the issues that we are looking at. There are also questions about the increased costs needed for police, fire, rescue, sanitation, etc. that will be needed for the communities. If they go forward with this, not only will the Islander games but the concerts that they are planing (NYAP) it is going to increase all of that kind of cost for the community. Where are they going to get the extra amount of money?

Also, along those lines, they do not discuss the train situation. If you want to get to Belmont Park, you have to transfer at Jamaica to go back to Belmont. The train station is only operative for the Belmont Stakes and they (ESD and NYAP) talk about upgrading the Belmont train station. What’s the cost? Is it worth it? Who’s going to wind up paying for it? The developers? The taxpayers? They (ESD and NYAP) are not specifying what that is going to cost. Some experts are saying that the station will cost millions and millions of dollars to complete.

When people say to us it’s a done deal, we say, the fight is going on because the plan is simply wrong and it causes more harm than good and the Nassau Coliseum was and with the renovations that New York state has provided with additional funding. It should be able to accomodate the Islanders. If this fight ends up in a court battle, there are experts, such as Andrew Zimbalist, who’s a vigorous opponent of economic subsidies of major league sports. He teaches at Smith College. In example, in a report he published in 2010, he analyzed what happens after sports facilities are built. He said that they do not raise employment or per capita income levels in a community. In his report, he said that over the last twenty years (1990-2010) that two-thirds of the development costs are publicly funded.

Little of the facilities’ revenue has been shared with local governments. You create a budgetary gap in which the cities and the local communities are believed that in fact they will get revenue from the arena or stadiums; that is not the case. Very often there is a budget gap, how will the communities respond to this? They either raise taxes or reduce services. Both situations are negative towards the local economy. When you look at the proposal for Belmont and the Islanders, if we have to wind up in court.

We will show what happened in Atlanta with Turner Field, what happened with Washington D.C. with MCI Arena, what happens in other cities around the country in which sports arenas and stadiums are built with public taxpayers money. The problem with that is that promises of economic benefit and jobs for the community do not materialize. Therefore, we are hoping that since the Nassau Coliseum is an alternative venue that the Islanders and the governor rethink the proposal and conclude on ending the project.

How did you become involved with the Belmont project?

I got a call from Tammie Williams who is the organizer for the Belmont Park Community Coalition. They came to my office and interviewed me. I have been involved in other battles like this on when Columbia wanted to expand in New York City and a little in the construction of the Barclays Center. Some people recommended me to Ms. Williams and her members of her community. They came and talked to me about the issue. I went out and visited the Floral Park and Elmont area. I was particularly impressed with the strength and spirit of the people in those two communities. I was also interested as a civil rights lawyer that Elmont is overwhelmingly people of color and the Floral Park community is overwhelmingly caucasian.

The groups were working very well together, they were respectful of one another, and in support of each other. There was a dynamic of people across geographic, racial, religious, age, class, etc. all coming together in opposition of the Belmont project. They were looking for someone to be the lawyer for them, I agreed to do it; it was an honor. My law firm agreed with me that this is a issue that is a good case for me to spearhead. Even if it doesn’t go to court, which hopefully it won’t have to.

Part of the challenge is to convince people in the communities of the arguments that I just made you. Also, the challenge is to convince the Islander fans to try to explain to them that the folks are not opposed to the Islanders team but the proposal. We want them to come back to Nassau County, just not in the way they are doing so. We want them back at the Nassau Coliseum, not Belmont.

Is there a way for Elmont to become in favor of the Islanders moving to Belmont?

No. The position is no to the plan, no to the proposed arena, no to the money that’s being involved, no to the disruption, no to the negative environmental consequences that the plan will cause. They (NYAP) need to make an agreement to offset the upcoming costs in a police, fire, or rescue incident. They need to make a commitment so the developers pay for the upgraded Belmont station. Those are issues at a minimum. In the position of the proposed arena plan, we are fully against it. The Belmont Community Coalition says no. The proposed plan, including the arena should be rejected.

What did you role against the Barclays Center teach you?

It taught me that this is a fight. It’s an uphill battle, it’s like the biblical “David vs. Goliath”. You got local people in Brooklyn and now Elmont/Floral Park who are just regular folk, working people; they’re up against some wealthy individuals and companies. Empire State Development corporation works with the rich people and I found that in the Barclays Center situation, although the rhetoric is that we want to listen to the community and gain their input.

Sadly, it’s like a charade.

They say they want to listen, but they don’t. What you have to do is organize, you hate to march, you have to rally, you have to reach out to people, you have to attend the meetings, and you have to get your message across. You also have to talk to the Islander fans, you can’t ignore them. They love the team, you don’t want to minimize the fans support. You have to try and convince people that the money and environmental issues will affect our community.

We have to convince people over the next couple of months that if we can get the large majority of people in Elmont and Floral Park to say no, we don’t want this; then it should be defeated. But, it’s a very difficult process because you’re dealing with people who want this project that are very powerful and wealthy, that have the experience to make the system work. I learned that you have to have stamina, have the passion to continue to fight to get the real story out. To have the stamina to continue to persuade people about the issues at hand.

Thank you for reading and be sure to tune into the latest episode of Destination Hockey!

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