The New Jersey Sports and Exposition Authority (NJSEA) announced at its Feb. 15 meeting that it had created a subcommittee to evaluate the long-term future of the facility, which is one of the most critical components of the Meadowlands Sports Complex.
The construction of the Red Bull Park soccer stadium in Harrison, expected to be completed in 2008, and the Prudential Center in Newark, expected to be done by 2007, means that the older Meadowlands sports venue will now face stiff competition.
The New Jersey Devils professional hockey team is already leaving Continental Arena in October for the new Newark arena, while the New Jersey Nets basketball team is planning to decamp for a new arena in Brooklyn in 2009, the same year that the Nets' Continental Arena lease expires.
In addition, the Devils recently announced that the Anschutz Entertainment Group, a major concert promoter, had been contracted to manage the Prudential Center. This move will ensure that many events throughout the year that customarily would go to Continental will now go to Newark.
Assisting the governor in a decision
Pamela Miller, a NJSEA commissioner from Hackensack, will lead the subcommittee. The other subcommittee members, engineer Michael Neglia of Harrington Park and former Lyndhurst Mayor Anthony Scardino, are also Bergen County-based. NJSEA Chairman Carl Goldberg and outgoing President George Zoffinger will also participate in the committee.
The fact that three of the subcommittee members live in Bergen County is significant because of the imminent challenges to the viability of their 26-year-old Continental Arena from neighboring Hudson and Essex counties.
Goldberg noted that the subcommittee does not face an easy task.
"The work of this committee will be done in parallel with a similar analysis at Governor Corzine's office," he said at the meeting. "We hope to assist them with whatever conclusion is come to regarding the future of the Continental Arena. It is our obligation as members of this board to be very active and thoughtful participants in dialogue about the future of one of our major assets."
He added, "If the continued operation of Continental Arena is a catalyst for continued investment in the Meadowlands region as a destination point, that's an important point for us to understand."
Affects business in Secaucus
During public comments, Meadowlands Chamber of Commerce President Jim Kirkos made it plain that he felt that the Continental Arena definitely was still an economic asset to the Meadowlands area.
"I just want to make sure that the board is cognizant that every decision that's made here has a tremendous local impact," he said, "right down to the small business on Park Avenue in Rutherford, to Secaucus and all around here."
Kirkos' comments included a mention of Cory Booker, the mayor of the municipality that lured the Devils away from the Meadowlands.
Booker has suggested that Corzine should close the Continental Arena after the Nets' lease expires in 2009. In an earlier interview, Newark's mayor further implied that the arena might be going the way of other entities that once lived in a swamp.
"The Continental Arena at this point is becoming more of a dinosaur," Booker said.
Kirkos said, "I've had conversations with Newark Mayor Cory Booker about avoiding a press campaign about the future of the two arenas. We're trying to develop a great destination in this area. To do that, we can't be throwing buckets of black paint on the sign that says 'Welcome to the Meadowlands.' "
For her part, Pamela Miller seemed willing to do what it takes to fully investigate Continental Arena's long-term economic viability before anyone else designates it for extinction.
"We are going to look at all the factors and come up with an unbiased, business-like evaluation," she said. "The dialogue should center around the best way to increase revenue into the state."
End of Zoffinger era affects bill payment procedure
The fact that Zoffinger, one of the main backers of keeping Continental Arena open, is about to end his five-year stint as NJSEA President loomed over the Feb. 15 meeting, as well as casting a shadow on the final decision concerning the arena's fate.
Zoffinger unexpectedly resigned as president on Jan. 30 amid a state ethics investigation. The investigation centers upon whether Zoffinger violated conflict-of-interest regulations by failing to divulge that his son Richard was an associate at the law firm that represents the Sports Authority. Zoffinger has maintained that he did not commit an ethics violation because his son does not live with him, does no work for the Sports Authority, and began working for the firm, Windels Marx Lane and Mittendorf, several years before he became the NJSEA president.
Zoffinger plans to leave his post after Gov. Corzine names his successor in the coming months.
One immediate effect of Zoffinger's resignation was seen at the Feb. 15 meeting. The NJSEA board voted not to pay any of its bills until the members were sure that they were not in jeopardy of violating any conflict-of-interest rules in the near future. The board members voted to delay any NJSEA payments for at least one month until all ethics guidelines are clearly detailed.
Some board members did not agree with the hold-up. Essex County Sheriff Armando Fontoura noted his exceptions to the delay.
"We are getting ridiculous," he said. "We are adding fuel to a fire that never should have started to begin with. I've had my differences with Mr. Zoffinger, but I have no problem with the way he's done business here. Everything that we have done has been aboveboard and in the best interests of the state."
Zoffinger's tumultuous tenure as NJSEA president has largely been defined by his larger-than-life personality. Cantankerous and combative, Zoffinger has used his staccato speech tones and strong will to go head-to-head with governors, professional team owners, and any other power broker who went up against his vision of the Meadowlands.
Now that Zoffinger is about to step down from his public position, he has said that he may continue that vision at the head of a group that would attempt to buy Continental Arena if Gov. Corzine allows it to be sold to private interests.
Whether Zoffinger will get the chance to literally put his money where his mouth is any Meadowlands-vs.-Newark arena war remains to be seen.
However, Jim Kirkos took a moment during the NJSEA meeting to let him know exactly where he stood. "George, I can't thank you enough for your leadership," he said. "Just know that the local business community is a strong advocate of yours."
Mark J. Bonamo can be reached at email@example.com.