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Michael Miller

Viewpoint

By Michael Miller
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Mitchel Field: Our Field Of Faded Dreams

Five decades ago, Nassau County was allowed to acquire the largest hunk of the closed Mitchel Air Force Base with the understanding that it would be used for educational, civic and cultural purposes. That was the list. Not office parks or movie theaters or themed restaurants. Since then, in increasing desperation, every combination of arena, performing arts venue, senior housing, workforce housing, industrial and commercial zone, hospitality and transportation facility has been proposed, planned, in some cases officially approved (unanimously, even), only to eventually decompose into constituent molecules, dirt to dirt.

Nearly 40 years ago, County Executive Ralph Caso declared 1974 as the “Year of Mitchel Field.” His list had seven projects and a $200-million price tag. It included a federal office building, a pet project of Congressman John Wydler for more than a decade. That year, the county actually leased 52 acres for light industrial development that was supposed to employ 6,000 people, but nothing happened and the county sued the developer. Bicentennial Hall was going to be very popular, with its planetarium and sports hall of fame. Within a year, Hempstead Presiding Supervisor Alfonse D’Amato said, “Maybe we’ll have it ready for the Tricentennial.”

You can paper over the half the Nassau Veterans Memorial Coliseum with the pages of past Mitchel Field leases, venture agreements, Master Plans and artists conceptions. Most were sunk by financing that was unclear or incomplete. Who is on the hook, for how much, for how long?

Credit makes almost everything we know go around, and in the current financial environment it is grossly unfair and irresponsible for county officials to spend taxpayer dollars on misleading advertising that implies that the latest Coliseum refurbishment plan is all set and in place. It will be worth, they say, “$10 Billion in Economic Benefit to the Area.” $10 billion? As opposed to what? A giant radioactive pit that dissolves the credit cards of passing motorists? I’m skeptical. On the other hand, after years and years of this, it’s hard to resist the urge to say, “Fine. Whatever. Build something.”

The price of Brent Crude oil is currently $107.91 a barrel. Ultimately, anything built on these last few remaining acres that requires a car or truck to get in and out isn’t going to push nearly as many dollars into our local economy as some people think. While the super-connected Ratner Group probably has the best chance of all to put everything together, it is also very possible that what things look like at the end and what they will cost will look different from today’s conceptual sketches and brochures.

However, if Mitchel Field is where Nassau County’s dreams have gone to die, it is also the site of great public triumphs. Even before it was totally clear that hundreds of acres at Mitchel Field would end up in Nassau County’s hands, the federal government was willing to hand over the deeds to hundreds of acres to schools.

The financial impact of public investment in Hofstra University and Nassau Community College on local communities and on the fiscal health of Nassau County’s government has been tremendous. They have created thousands of good, long-term jobs, thousands of customers for local businesses, attracted out-of-town dollars like nothing else we’ve built and helped put five decades of Long Islanders on a path of opportunity. They have been money machines, paying taxpayers back over and over, year after year.

It is mostly forgotten that there were other colleges planned or schemed for Mitchel Field. Next week’s story is a good reminder to decision-makers that actions they take today, due to altruism or indifference, grudges or rivalries, may cast the shape of things half a century down the road.

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Michael Miller is a freelance writer, designer and strategic consultant who has worked in state and local government. Email: millercolumn@optimum.net