Column: Does Suffolk County really need a 17,500-seat arena?

Entertainment-starved East End residents rejoice! Our elected Suffolk County officials are pushing a brilliant plan to bring a 17,500-seat arena to Ronkonkoma as part of a massive development of the area, currently home to a Long Island Rail Road parking lot.

No more long train rides to Manhattan or Brooklyn for East Enders who want to see world-class entertainment. And to think, a professional sports team might one day make its home about 20 miles from the Riverhead Town border. Does it get any better than that?

OK, let’s back up a minute.

If you’re unfamiliar with this arena proposal, here’s some background. In early April, Suffolk County announced that a development proposal submitted by Jones Lang LaSalle Inc., a Chicago real estate developer, had been selected as the winning bid. County officials had reviewed four proposals, most of which included a mix of housing, office space and shops. Only one included plopping a massive arena right in the heart of Suffolk County.

One of the proposals came from Renaissance Downtowns, the same group currently involved with the redevelopment of Riverside.

The proposal featuring the arena also includes two community ice rinks, a wellness recreation center, a sports medicine center, 160,000 square feet of medical office space, 200,000 square feet of commercial office space and 90,000 square feet of retail and dining. As anyone who’s been to the Ronkonkoma train station on a weekday morning can attest, the current parking lot typically fills to capacity. So the proposal also requires coming up with some way to replace the thousands of parking spaces that will be swallowed up by the project.

Newsday broke the story on a Sunday night in April. I noticed a tweet from reporter Jim Baumbach, who hinted at something big by writing: “Stand by for breaking news.” Mr. Baumbach has been all over arena updates for the New York Islanders’ proposed Belmont development, so I figured his story would be about that. Much to my surprise, and I think almost everyone else in Suffolk County, I learned instead of this new arena proposal.

My initial reaction was a mix of disbelief and shock. Did this mean the Islanders might be considering a move out east after the failed Barclays Center experiment? Why build an arena of that size unless a professional sports team is locked up?

As the details trickled out, this arena proposal became more and more absurd. I’m not at that stage of life where I’m screaming “NIMBY” over every nail hammered within a certain radius of my house, but even I can admit this makes little sense. Would it be great to have a short drive to a state-of-the-art arena to watch a concert? Sure, I suppose. But the reality is this area is already served just fine by the entertainment options at Madison Square Garden, Barclays Center, the remodeled Nassau Veterans Memorial Coliseum and, eventually, a new arena at Belmont.

Not long after the news broke, the Islanders and the NHL dismissed any thought of the team moving to Ronkonkoma. The NHL already has three teams in the metropolitan market, so a fourth in Suffolk County would never happen. And don’t count on an NBA team ever relocating to central Suffolk. Cities like Seattle, Kansas City and Pittsburgh don’t have NBA teams.

Without a professional team as a home tenant, an arena that size is wasteful.

What really struck me about this proposal is how it seemed to come out of left field. Maybe I just wasn’t paying attention to smaller news outlets like us that report on news in that area. But can anyone imagine officials selecting an arena development for an area like the Enterprise Park at Calverton without people flooding community forums and meetings to discuss every last detail? Think about the discussion that went into the Sports East proposal in Mattituck!

An arena in Suffolk County is a big dream that fails to address more pressing concerns. The county needs more affordable housing. Develop that area into a place young professionals will want to live. Think creatively instead of dreaming about a Stanley Cup parade down Lakeland Avenue.

Not surprisingly, Newsday’s editorial board criticized the choice.

“Welcome to Long Island, the land of pristine beaches, lovely vineyards and visions of big sports arenas,” an editorial last month said.

My guess is this arena will never come to fruition as currently designed. As the Islanders move forward with the Belmont arena, any dream of Long Island’s hockey team moving east will die.

Better luck next time, Suffolk County.

Photo caption: Barclays Center in Brooklyn opened in 2012 and the New York Islanders moved there in 2015. Now the Islanders are bound for an arena proposed at Belmont. Could the area support another arena in Ronkonkoma? (Credit: Joe Werkmeister)

The author is the editor of the Riverhead News-Review and The Suffolk Times. He can be reached at 631-354-8049 or [email protected].