Thursday, December 17, 2009

Special Comment: Lighthouse Must End Media Blackout

Now, a special comment on the Lighthouse Project and the decision that now risks losing them everything for which they claim to fight.

From the beginning, the Lighthouse Project promised something fresh and new for Long Island: a future containing badly-needed apartment housing, mixed-use communities, and a fresh perspective on the suburban concept we pioneered with Levittown many decades ago.  The developers, Charles Wang and Scott Rechler, sought to deliver Long Island from the backward thinking that has paralyzed our economic progress and seen us search for an identity since Grumman left, taking the last vestiges of Long Island's aerospace industry with it.  Outreach meetings were held, plans put out in the open, and dissenters both engaged and challenged.  This active engagement led to near-record levels of support for the project, and a passionate turnout among supporters that in many ways motivated the Town of Hempstead, which expected the idea to simply fade away, to take the thought of this new island dream seriously.

Community activists who had been clamoring for this type of development for years were suddenly joined by casual observers and, in some cases, Islanders fans, some of whom merely supported their team and wished they could spend more time talking about the intricacies of the team's power play.  Despite many events being largely jersey-free, fans delivered, coming out in force and ensuring that many public hearings had over 90% supporters in the audience.  Nobody can say these folks did not go above and beyond their duties.

This support level culminated on August 4, where all speakers in favor of the project were greeted with thunderous applause, including Mr. Wang himself.  It appeared, at long last, that a new day was dawning.

The wheels began to fall off during a re-zoning hearing filled with grandstanding on the stage and acrimony in the seats.  Some Lighthouse consultants seemed unprepared to answer even basic questions, and the project presented some numbers, such as new vehicle trips to the region, that seemed a stretch at best.  Some within the project, and their enablers in the blogosphere, took up the cause and railed against the Town of Hempstead for doing something that is both largely kabuki theater and completely normal for a hearing of that type.  Dissenting voices, which are far outnumbered in the general populace, began to feel emboldened.

Then, it came, like a swift punch to the stomach, as I sat in a business conference in Midtown Manhattan: a report from the Long Island Press claiming the Lighthouse Project had been abandoned.  Anxious fans vented on blogs – some even calling or texting me to beg for any information (of which I had none).  Faced with this report, the Lighthouse Project made the biggest in a string of mistakes: it sat on a statement denying the report until almost noon the next day – a full 19 hours after the report first surfaced.  It seemed, to many, to be an insult to those who volunteered their time and energy to push for this project out of nothing more than ardent belief.

Since this incident, the Lighthouse has gone into complete media blackout, refusing to speak to anyone on the record for nearly 2 months.  Tom Suozzi, the main cheerleader for the Lighthouse Project, seemed to forget that running for a new term actually involved running, and he fell victim to an orchestrated tax-based revolt led by Ed Mangano of Bethpage.  Suddenly, the entire equation has been thrown into flux, with all players needing to adjust to this new reality.

The silence has motivated many to go digging in places that may have otherwise been left alone.  Randi Marshall of Newsday reminded us that other developers would want to step in should the Lighthouse fall by the wayside, a fact that seemed to encourage opponents who now believed they had an effective counter for the "If not this, then What?" attitude of many supporters.  Many sources began to raise questions about Mr. Wang's ability to gain financing and his conduct, with the Long Island Business News naming him one of the political losers of 2009.  B.D. Gallof uncovered a bombshell on Hockey Independent, hearing from a source familiar with the negotiations that the Lighthouse Project owed F.P. Clark, the environmental consultancy, over $200,000, had stopped payments, and refused to back off of estimates that have been roundly criticized, claiming traffic estimates must be sound because the state signed off on them.  I followed up on a tip and discovered tens of thousands of dollars in campaign contributions to incoming County Executive Mangano since Election Day, all coming from either large developers or groups connected to prominent politicians.  This seemed to momentarily put a jolt into some political operatives, since a Republican source was quick to alert me that Newsday tweeted about Ed Mangano's key supporters being pro-Lighthouse in the aftermath of this revelation.  Reports are flying that the Town and the developers are far apart on a proposed reduction in scope, with sources and bloggers close to Mr. Wang pushing a 10% reduction and some connected to the Town floating numbers closer to 35%.  Even in light of this string of revelations, including some that threaten the very viability of the Lighthouse Project, the developers have said nothing.

Meanwhile, the very hockey fans that formed a motivated core of support (though did not turn out in force for the election) are beginning to fracture under the weight of uncertainty.  Some believe it would be most helpful to argue over new options, such as Brooklyn, a project that appears to be breaking ground in the immediate future, as Fast Company magazine reported today that traffic detours are being put in the neighborhood (though it would require new plans if it were to accommodate a hockey rink).  There are also rumblings about Willets Point in Queens, which recently closed a Request for Qualifications (RFQ), an initial step in what  will not be a quick and painless process.  Opponents have become even more brazen, seeking to cheapen the goals of the Lighthouse and boil something that was never just about hockey to an issue surrounding a hockey team.  General consensus seems to be that the Lighthouse Project is dead, merely waiting for some merciful soul to call time of death.

This is why enough is enough.  Mr. Wang, you and your group must step out of the Cone of Silence and back into the work that got you to this place to begin with.  Yes, the Town of Hempstead has made many mistakes, showing its arrogant handling of large development projects, and some of their complaints have been petty.  However, you, a man who should know how to "play the game," have made your own share of mistakes; one source connected to the Republican Party told me you didn't even bother to call and congratulate Kate Murray on her electoral victory.  It may seem like a small gesture, but it would have taken 3 minutes, at most, and sent a major symbolic message.  Your behavior does not look judicious, it looks like a genuine slap in the face to the thousands who have fought with and supported you in any way they could – from the thousands who signed petitions to people like The Sign Man, who stayed up all night with his family before the October 3 deadline to make hundreds of pro-Lighthouse signs.

To make matters worse, your silence has led you to lose complete control over the public discourse.  The days of Katrina's official blog, which offered near daily updates on the goings-on in the Lighthouse world, seem to be at least on hiatus, as it has not been updated in 5 weeks.  Opponents who feel emboldened by election results that were predictable (I don't think anyone genuinely expected Kate Murray to lose this election based on a decision she hasn't even made and against an opponent who barely campaigned) and seem to have forgotten their minority status are suddenly turning loud, claiming that this was all a whim on your part, Mr. Wang, and done out of pure greed, not necessity mixed with business sense.

I say this with as much admiration and respect as I can muster, sir: I admire you for building a business from nothing into the Fortune 500.  As a person working on a business idea myself, I can currently only hope for that level of success.  That having been said, you do not come off looking very intelligent now.  I understand your reluctance to negotiate through the media, sir, and nobody is asking you to do that.  I am asking you to talk to us, to acknowledge our sacrifice in support of your dream that we have made our own. I am asking you to see this project through and force the Town of Hempstead to, if nothing more, actually vote on and own the outcome of this sorry state of affairs.  To get this far and not even progress to a vote, well, that would be a horrible shame.

More than anything else, Mr. Wang, we are asking you to be honest with us.  If the project is dead, tell us – I'll shut this site down tomorrow and continue working on the cause of my life.  If there is a deal in another location, at least begin to tamper expectations.

Mr. Wang, after all we've done for you, communication is not much to ask.  End this media blackout, give the Lighthouse side of the story, and restore the other side to a debate that has become little more than vultures picking at an imaginary corpse.

Speak up, and tell us: Are you committed?

Yes, or No?

Good night and good luck.

(Special thanks to B.D. Gallof for letting me use his "Cone of Silence" Photoshop)

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  1. Looks like Avalon will develop the area with REAL AFFORDABLE housing, unlike what was unveiled by the TOH at the hearings a few months back. No wonder Wang is silent, when grilled with specifics by the Town Board, they folded like an old cheap camera!!

  2. Wow! Calling the Wanger out, super job, Nick! I can only assume he will get a whiff of this even if he doesn't read it himself...I wonder if Wang will show some class and answer this powerful post...

    I agree with you...He's coming off as disrespectful...People have dedicated their precious time to this project and Wangs vision and he's shown "no class"...He should call the sign man, thank him personally and he should call and thank you for keeping people informed and most importantly he needs to MAKE SURE ISLES DONT LEAVE!!!!

  3. I really dont get what he needs to come out and say? He clearly stated a couple of months back that he doesnt want to do anything specifically through the media and so far he has followed through on that promise. Just because the media blackout makes you nervous shouldn't distract from the original Point of the media blackout, which is to work behind the scenes to see if any sort of compromise can be achieved. You have managed to undercover and unearth information through muckracking and for that I give you great credit Nick; I really do - but in the end if Wang and Rechler feel their ONLY chance to pass this is through quiet backchannels, well then the silence really does tell us a Lot about his commitment. He is so committed to doing what it takes to have the vision built that he is willing to KEEP HIS OWN MOUTH SHUT for the better part of 3 months. That speaks volumes on his commitment.

    Now, as far as what may or may not occur down the line, he is not going to speculate on hypotehticals at brooklyn or atlantic yards now. He is waiting for the town to come back with yes or no.

    It really is, i am afraid, that damn simple. His commitment is to build the lighthouse - and he is awaiting an answer from the town to a proposal that was okayed by the county several years ago.

    Nothing else for any of else to do but to await the town's answer.

    If you guys really want to make a difference, pressure the TOH to spill their beans into giving an official yes or no.

    then you get closure

  4. while i understand frustration at the disconnect from wang/rech, i also see where silence might be their only logical stance right now, depending on what is going on 'behind the scenes.' if there are negotiations - with any party - it may be that they are best served to say nothing about the LH status or prospects. also, the LI Press story has taken on more significance for me over time. i wondered at the time if, in a fit of anger over some development or maneuver by 'TOH/Murray', mr. wang had in fact lost his temper and told someone - "that's it! i've had it! I'm out!" but was talked back in or cooled off on his own and then finally issued the denial. it's even possible that the delay in denying was no "mistake" at all. i'm a little reticient to say this, but when you add it all up - the LI press thing, the total silence, the whole brooklyn scenario, suozzi's ouster, other potential developers "suddenly" coming forth - it may well be that wang is already decided about moving on and for reasons that will be obvious once the story is told, is keeping quiet until the details as to where are worked out.
    on the other hand, if you still hold out hope for the project, you might imagine that all the silence from both sides means there are real talks going on to hammer out a LH deal, that the parties are somehow keeping it all under wraps with no leaks, and that soon there's going to a big announcement and a public love-fest to introduce the whole thing. which scenario seems more plausible?

  5. Anon, in all seriousness, I buy the no news is good news angle. However, in my view, not talking to the media, and not talking to your supporters, the people, are different things. They could continue negotiating in silence while talking to the people. Here are a few examples:

    - No more commercials at the Coliseum
    - The News section of the official Lighthouse web site hasn't been updated in 2 months
    - The Lighthouse Project's official blog hasn't been updated in 5 weeks
    - I haven't seen a Lighthouse commercial in weeks - used to see one practically every day

    I think the main issue I have is that the Lighthouse has lost control of the public discourse and ceded the conversation to those either thinking it's dead or wishing to kill it. In my view, talking to the people and communicating their desire to stick it out could go a long way to curb the anxiety. If you disagree, great...Special Comments are pure opinion pieces meant to provoke discussion.

    I think we are continuing to hold the Town accountable, because their excuses are getting more flimsy as the process goes on. However, if the reports I'm hearing are true, the Lighthouse hasn't provided all the information they legally have to provide before the Town can give its final yes or no.

    That to me is the point - I believe this project had so much support because of the high level of engagement, and the Town should not get away with not voting on this. Ending the blackout, re-starting the conversation, and making sure the reviews are done right can lead us to that goal.

  6. Day1 - at this point, it can go either way, and your scenarios are both well thought-out. If Jimmy's theory is correct, this is part of a plan to ensure Ed Mangano has this project high on his radar (remember that post from last week - we'll know how serious he is by how quickly he tackles the issue after taking office). However, on the other hand, we've heard many troubling things coming from the Republicans on this - a Republican source complained about the lack of a courtesy phone call, for example, and other Republicans told B.D. that they were itching to re-examine the lease, which they called a "sweetheart deal." Mangano himself refused to commit to the agreement before having the land appraised.

    It seems like a lot of avoidable mistakes at this point....Looks to me like the Town's asinine policy of refusing to meet with developers caused the Lighthouse to harden its position on changing the project, and now we're in flux.

    I've spoken many times about Can-Do vs. Can't-Do. I don't doubt that Mr. Wang badly wants the Lighthouse to succeed, but it remains to be seen whether all sides are committed to work together and make a deal.

  7. - No more commercials at the Coliseum
    - The News section of the official Lighthouse web site hasn't been updated in 2 months
    - The Lighthouse Project's official blog hasn't been updated in 5 weeks
    - I haven't seen a Lighthouse commercial in weeks - used to see one practically every day

    i did not even realize this. to me, this seems to clear up the picture further on the negative side.

  8. To anonymous...

    Personally, I think backchannels has only let one side now dictate the debate, except for when certain mouthpieces also ply their agenda. I don't think it's nervousness, but the fact that silence puts fans who were asked to be the catalyst, now to take a backseat to a vehicle they were asked to step onto. That seems terribly unfair.

    Furthermore, "silence" which has neither been silent or effective, has not moved anything. Just because Charles wants silence doesn't quite make it spin out to be the best course of action, you know?

    Silence is something that was never quite in place from Feb 09 now after Oct 3rd, after months and months of the opposite just doesn't seem like the best course of action.

    Transparency is what is needed, not some murky fog for "back channels". Has back channels helped get more meetings since the end of October?

    Look, we all know this is not just LHP here. We all know that the ToH has made a mess with miscue, mistakes, silliness, and gamesmanship. I think myself, Nick and others get that...

    But I in my professional life have never seen murk, obtuse, PR and back channels solve deep divides. Ever.

    Open honesty, communication, listening, flexbility have and always will. Even when the chips are down and when it is most difficult to do it, especially when the other side is being anything but...

    Those who still do that even then are the most likely to succeed. Look up any business and project success story. 9 times out of 10, this is the case.

    Just my take.

    And great piece NICK!

  9. Well written and said, but you are missing the simple truth - this was never about Long Island's survival, the Islanders or any other grander vision...This was about Charles' ego. Remember he said he knows what Long Island needs, Long Island needs an icon, a symbol. Wang used everyone in his path, his partner, his consultants, the fans and the unions, the business leaders and the local public all desperate to find an answer to our national and global economic downturn. Wang has not been able to get funding since long before the final hearing - he has searched the globe for money that will not be released for a project that sits at the center of a real estate glut. The town of Hempstead didnt genuflect to Wang and he was insulted because his ego makes him think he can do and say anything and the following sheep will do as they're told. But this is not CA, you dont control the public conscience and in the end Wang's arrogance and lack of willingness to compromise will be his demise. Just as it was at CA, which is still investigating him for illegal practices,
    When people are starving they will follow anyone if they are promised food - the cult mentality. Welcome to the Wang world of mind control - he sured fooled and used the hockey fans and thousands of Long Islanders. This was predictable, but very sad since Long Island needed the hope. And that is the most aggregious part of all of this - the way this self engrandising cult leader used the public and then when real answers are required, as is the mandatory state permitting process, he decides the rules dont apply to him and he threatens to take his toys and play elsewhere....that's not a commitment to Long Island, its blackmail.

  10. I also have questioned some of charles wang's decisons,actions and tactics, but i think the above rings out with a level demonization and borderline character assassination that belies objectivity about the issue and reads more like a basic, fundamental personal attack.
    (and what does "engrandising" mean? i can't find in the dictionary.)

  11. Anon - I don't think I or anyone else here will be calling the Vatican to nominate Charles Wang for sainthood. I've kept my comments to my ardent belief that this is the right project for the area and should move forward. You can disagree with or dislike the man as much as you want, and this project can either succeed or fail. However, to suggest that Mr. Wang has single-handedly played everyone for saps and been running a one-man sideshow to hide his true intentions is revisionist history at best and betrays an agenda at worst.

    It's interesting to me that we have had 2 comments from completely different perspectives - one suggesting the Town of Hempstead is solely to blame, and the other suggesting Charles Wang. I hope the 2 sides aren't as far apart in their views as those 2 commenters.

  12. Funny thing is if the public transport light rail idea HAD been implemented into this project, then on nights like last night with heavy snow more people would have been able to get out to the game (or at least tried to show up) because it would have been better than risking life/limb to drive on roads that are never plowed.

    Funny how provinces of ottawa and quebec, as well asupstate new york have no problems with plowing, when they get these storms all the time, but one major storm wipes out LI.

  13. A. There are provisions made for mass transit in the plan, but the government is responsible for making that happen. The Lighthouse has told me, whether you agree or not, that their calculation is that adding a specific solution (that would likely face fierce opposition from the winners in a certain adjacent village) would create the perception that the project couldn't succeed without that particular solution. We're looking at a 10-year build-out on this, and our reps in Congress have already put in requests for improvements in the area.

    B. Are you seriously trying to oppose this out of snow now? I thought people were out of arguments before....

  14. Nick,

    Did you hear about this?

    From Newsday:

    Incoming pols are pro-Lighthouse Project
    December 16, 2009 By RANDI F. MARSHALL AND EDEN LAIKIN.,,

    Incoming Nassau County Executive Edward Mangano is surrounding himself with some vocal supporters of the Lighthouse Project, who say they're going to make the effort to redevelop the land around Nassau Coliseum a top priority come next month.

    Still, the mixed-use development could end up smaller or less dense, and the developers' lease still remains uncertain, as some of those same voices...

  15. Above post from Big Van Vader.

  16. BVV - good to hear from you. I did, and it's in fact referenced above because some Republican sources wanted to make sure I knew about it. Mangano's top deputy is a man named Rob Walker, who has appeared in the pro-Lighthouse videos in the past. We're working on more information around that.

  17. Big Van Vader, thats some great news!

  18. Newsday's Eden Laiken (we all love her, don't we?) Just had a feature in today's paper that the TOH has halted the Lighthouse review process citing the $$$ owed to Clark.

  19. I saw - only 12 days after BD broke the story, I picked it up, and everyone else looked the other way.

  20. Sorry bad I saw that feature too :redface

  21. Don't worry about it, Bill - nothing for you to apologize for.

  22. Unfortunately, I think the project is dead. Wang isn't coming out and saying it because he wants to continue selling Islanders tickets for the remainder of the season. The Coliseum would be empty every night if they announced they were moving, so he won't say it until after the season is over.