12/20/2017 4:06PM

New hockey arena part of larger Belmont Park renovation project


ELMONT, N.Y. – New York Racing Association officials believe a new hockey arena, hotel, and retail space announced Wednesday for Belmont Park is the next step in revitalizing the track and the Thoroughbred racing industry in New York.

On Wednesday, it was announced that Arena Partners, a group representing the New York Islanders of the NHL, won a bid to construct an 18,000-seat arena on the grounds of Belmont Park. The proposal includes 435,000 square feet of retail, dining, and entertainment space, and a hotel with 200 to 250 rooms. The arena, which state and local officials hope to open for the 2020-21 NHL season, will be located just behind the western end of the grandstand at Belmont Park and very close to the Long Island Rail Road station.

It was announced that the LIRR station would be refurbished and there will be a commitment to expand LIRR service to Belmont Park, though a timetable was not given.

Arena Partners was selected over a proposal submitted by the New York City Football Club of Major League Soccer, which sought to build a 26,000-seat open-air soccer stadium at the track as well as retail and dining amenities and a community park south of Hempstead Turnpike. That lot will remain a parking lot for the Islanders.

Arena Partners, which includes the Islanders and representatives of Madison Square Garden and the New York Mets, plans to invest $1 billion into the arena project, according to Howard Zemsky, president and chief executive of the Empire State Development Corp., which decided which group won the bid.

Chris Kay, president and CEO of NYRA, called Wednesday’s announcement “a very important additional step in the process” of renovating Belmont Park.

“We want to take steps to renovate our track, renovate our clubhouse, renovate the backyard and the paddock, and this is an important step in that direction,” Kay said.

Kay said he hopes NYRA could submit plans for those renovations to the Franchise Oversight Board and then to government officials sometime in 2018. Kay didn’t expect any renovations to Belmont Park to begin before 2019.

:: Save on PPs, digital subscriptions, and more!

Kay said there will be no interruption to the 2018 racing schedule at Belmont Park, which calls for a 54-day spring-summer meet from April 27 through July 15 and a 36-day fall meet from Sept. 7 through Oct. 28.

Zemsky said it is hoped that ground will be broken for the new arena in June. The Islanders currently play at The Barclays Center in Brooklyn and are obligated to do so through the 2018-19 season. It was unclear where they would play the 2019-20 season.

Noting that on June 9 Belmont Park will host the 150th running of the Belmont Stakes, Kay said, “I couldn’t think of a better time to break ground than that if it’s possible.”

It was unclear just how much of the current backyard of Belmont will be occupied by the arena and surrounding retail and dining establishments.

Leading the praise for the arena was Gov. Andrew Cuomo, who made a rare appearance at Belmont Park, landing by helicopter in the infield of the training track before being driven over to the front side. He attended the press conference along with three Islanders players – including team captain John Tavares – NHL commissioner Gary Bettman, singer Billy Joel, and a bevy of local politicians.

Without mentioning Belmont Park by name, Cuomo said the arena will “utilize this great asset that has been underutilized for years.”

“How many times have I driven down the Cross Island Parkway and looked at this beautiful piece of real estate, saying, ‘Why don’t they do something with it?’” Cuomo said.

Two years ago, Michael Dubb, horse owner, developer, and member of the NYRA board of directors, approached Charles Wang, then majority owner of the Islanders, about coming to Belmont Park. The team had just moved to The Barclays Center from the Nassau Coliseum, where it played for 43 seasons, and Wang was not happy with the new facility.

Even after Wang sold the majority ownership of the team to Jon Ledecky and Scott Malkin, Dubb followed through with the possibility of moving the team to Belmont. A request-for-proposal process was being undertaken by the state at that time, but was scuttled last December. The new RFP process began in July and ended in September.

“I wanted to save the Islanders for Long Island, and I thought it would be good for horse racing,” Dubb said.

As for the future of Belmont Park, Dubb said NYRA “would like to work out an extension on our lease and work with designers to take Belmont Park to its highest, best use to promote horse racing and the racing industry.”