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Newsday (New York)

 

The prospective investment team behind a developer's proposal to build a 17,500-seat sports arena in Ronkonkoma listed its involvement in four recent projects nationwide as evidence of its ability to fund the $1.1 billion development in Suffolk.

Ronkonkoma Vision Project LLC, led by Ray Bartoszek, Ben Bouma and Kevin Ackles, said in a document submitted to Suffolk County during the bidding process last winter that it is "in the midst of all logistics with design and construction" on another sports arena project outside Seattle.

However, Rachel Bianchi, a spokeswoman for the city of Tukwila — where the Seattle-area arena was to be built — told Newsday "no substantive work" has been done on the project since 2015. The arena was pitched as a home for a potential National Hockey League expansion team that never materialized.

Bartoszek, in a brief telephone interview in April, acknowledged the Seattle-area arena project was "dead." He has not returned calls since. Bouma and Ackles have not responded to repeated requests for comment.

Jones Lang LaSalle, a $7.9 billion Chicago-based real estate development company, submitted the proposal to Suffolk last fall to develop 40 acres "in association with" Ronkonkoma Vision Project LLC and was selected as the master developer in April. However, information detailing the specific roles of the two partnering companies in the development is scant in submission documents obtained by Newsday.

Jones Lang LaSalle is listed as "project lead" — essentially the equivalent of a contractor on a house renovation, experts said — and Ronkonkoma Vision Project LLC is listed as "development partner" with no specified responsibilities laid out in the documents.

Steve D'Iorio, a senior vice president for Jones Lang LaSalle who is listed as the project's contact person with the county, told Newsday in April that Ronkonkoma Vision Project LLC is responsible for providing the funding for the $1.1 billion endeavor.

A Newsday examination into the Ronkonkoma Vision Project LLC's Seattle sports arena project — as well as the three other projects it listed in its bio to the county — raises questions about its characterizations of those developments and whether Suffolk properly vetted Jones Lang LaSalle's investment partner before announcing the winning bid.

Ronkonkoma Vision Project LLC's depiction of the Seattle arena project and the three others comes from a document titled "Ronkonkoma Vision Project Team Identification" that was included in Jones Lang LaSalle's response to the county's request for qualifications in October to develop the Ronkonkoma property.

Newsday obtained this document and several others from the Jones Lang LaSalle group's submission after the county chose it as the winning proposal in April.

Among Newsday's findings regarding the investment group's background: Bianchi, the Tukwila spokeswoman, disputed Ronkonkoma Vision Project LLC's representation to the county that the arena project was ongoing. Bianchi said construction never began because the group stopped communicating with the city during the environmental review process. She said the last meeting with the city and the developers was February 2016.

Emails between Tukwila officials and the arena developers, obtained by Newsday via a public records request, show that the developers ran into funding problems in 2015. The emails also show that the developers tried to salvage the arena project by seeking new funding sources in 2016. The city informed the developers in January 2017 that it was closing the project "due to inactivity."

Bianchi said no discussions have occurred with the developers since then. Ronkonkoma Vision Project LLC cites a "$170 million arena enhancement/development concept," which refers to a sports, retail, hotel and entertainment complex built in 2014 next to the arena for the NHL's Buffalo Sabres. However, Don Heins, a spokesman for Pegula Sports & Entertainment, which developed the complex, said, "the gentlemen mentioned were not part of that project."

Heins said Bouma once worked as a consultant for Sabres owner Terry Pegula. Asked if Bouma might have been involved with the "concept" of the complex, Heins said: "We've found no record that Ben was involved. Some of the initial planning committee remain with our company and none recall his involvement. Those meetings date as far back as 2011." Pegula was unavailable for an interview, Heins said.

Ronkonkoma Vision Project LLC lists a "$103 million arena and program development project at Penn State" — the Pegula Ice Arena, which opened in 2013 for the school's new Division I hockey team. It was funded by Terry and Kim Pegula. Heins said Bouma "was an adviser early in the Penn State project" and referred a question about his specific role to Penn State. Jeff Nelson, spokesman for the university's athletic department, said there are no high-ranking athletic officials from that time still employed who can detail Bouma's involvement. Joe Battista, a former associate athletic director who has since retired, is credited with connecting the Pegulas with Penn State.

In an email, Battista said the university hired Bouma as "a contract employee" for the hockey project. Battista said Bouma was involved with marketing, public relations, building design and ticketing. Ronkonkoma Vision Project LLC also refers to $995 million raised for "a Las Vegas, NV Residence Tower and Film Studio." However, there are no publicly available documents or news reports about a project of that kind. This does not mean such a development doesn't exist.

Newsday contacted representatives for the cities of Las Vegas, North Las Vegas and Henderson and Clark County to see if any active project fits this description. No municipality was aware of such a project. Developer chosen

Bartoszek, Bouma and Ackles formed a holding company called Ronkonkoma Vision Project LLC in December, registered in Bartoszek's home state of Montana, and they became partners with Jones Lang LaSalle on the Ronkonkoma proposal.

In April, the county selected the Jones Lang LaSalle proposal — which also included a hotel, convention center and retail space — as the winner over three other submissions. Long Island developers RXR Realty and Tritec Real Estate proposed separate retail and residential developments, and Renaissance Downtowns pitched an e-commerce distribution center.

Jones Lang LaSalle is no stranger to this type of large-scale development. The publicly traded real estate investment company, with annual revenue of $7.9 billion last year, was the project manager on the $1 billion renovation of Madison Square Garden. D'Iorio, the county's contact person at Jones Lang LaSalle, also was involved with the Madison Square Garden project.

In June, the Suffolk County Legislature voted to give the Jones Lang LaSalle group eight months to assess its proposal's feasibility and to flesh out its plans. The development team was represented at the legislature by D'Iorio and by John Cameron of Woodbury-based Cameron Engineering & Associates, one of the development's subcontractors.

Cameron told the legislature that JLL could change the size of the arena, or drop it altogether, if financing became an issue or if it decided the space can be better utilized.

The development group is set to return to the legislature in early 2019 with a detailed proposal — including a specific financing plan — that will be voted on before the project proceeds.

Jones Lang LaSalle has declined to comment on Newsday's findings about Ronkonkoma Vision Project LLC's depiction of its past work. D'Iorio has not responded to messages from Newsday since he told Newsday a day after the county selected the proposal that the role of Bartoszek, Bouma and Ackles would be to "fund" the project.

"The team hasn't changed and everyone in the submission continues to be committed," Jones Lang LaSalle managing partner Michael Shenot said. "We are pushing forward full speed."

Suffolk County spokesman Jason Elan also declined to answer questions about the project's investors or the county's background search. Instead, he provided a statement from Lou Bekofsky, deputy commissioner of Suffolk's Economic Development and Planning Department.

"We are confident in the capabilities of JLL's world-class project development team, architects, and engineers to deliver an outstanding project as they progress from concept to a full proposal," said Bekofsky, who was on the county's request for qualifications evaluation committee at Ronkonkoma.

Suffolk County Executive Steve Bellone declined to comment, Elan said.

In its proposal to the county, the Ronkonkoma Vision Project LLC trio said they "each have more than 25 years in the fields of professional sports/collegiate athletics, project creation, project funding and management."

Bartoszek is a graduate of the Merchant Marine Academy in Kings Point who lives in Big Sky, Montana. A retired investment banker who also has a home in Southampton, Bartoszek bought a minority share of the Yankees in 2011, tried to purchase control of the NHL's Arizona Coyotes in 2013 and expressed interest in bringing an NHL expansion team to the Seattle area in 2015.

"He's flirted with a couple of opportunities but none of them have become substantive to this point," National Hockey League commissioner Gary Bettman said of Bartoszek in April. But the Ronkonkoma plans, while calling for a hockey team to play at the arena, have been dismissed by both the NHL and the New York Islanders. NHL deputy commissioner Bill Daly said in April the league won't consider adding an expansion team to play in Ronkonkoma, and Islanders co-owner Jon Ledecky said the team is focusing only on plans to build a new arena at Belmont Park.

Bartozek's partners with Ronkonkoma Vision Project LLC include Bouma, a freelance sports television producer who also has worked in the media relations departments of the Pittsburgh Pirates and Washington Capitals, and Ackles, a principal at a Chicago-based business venture development practice.

Questions raised

Experts said Ronkonkoma Vision Project LLC's representation of their past work raises questions about their ability to finance the project and the county's due diligence process in selecting them.

Irwin Kishner is a prominent New York sports attorney who has worked on 11 stadium financing arrangements, including those for Yankee Stadium, Citi Field and MetLife Stadium. He said it's "extremely critical to be open, honest and direct" in submissions to government entities because in this case the county is basing its decision regarding development of publicly owned land on a group's past work.

"It's the same risks as if you put falsities on a resume, or put falsities in a public offering document," Kishner said. "Decisions are being based upon the facts that are disclosed."

Joel Maxcy, a sports economics professor at Drexel who studies arena deals, said he found it "strange" that the RVP group cited its work in Seattle as a success story, noting how it is choosing to draw attention to an arena that didn't pan out as part of another arena proposal.

Richard Brodsky, a former state assemblyman from Westchester who teaches law at New York University, said "if the county is going to enter into a relationship with them, the legislators have a responsibility to say, 'Who are they and what are their qualifications?'"

Suffolk legislators said they were concerned by Newsday's findings.

"If they're trying to say a project is ongoing when other reports are that it's shut down, that's very concerning," Suffolk Legislature Presiding Officer DuWayne Gregory (D-Copiague) said.

Deputy Presiding Officer Rob Calarco (D-Patchogue) said the Ronkonkoma Vision Project LLC team's background is an important factor on a project this size. "That does raise a question in terms of the viability of the project," Calarco said, "and how much they would be looking for the county, state or other entities to finance the project."

Calarco said he wants to see a plan to finance the proposal at the end of the eight-month exclusive negotiating window granted by the Suffolk Legislature in May. He said it's "not just 'this is what we want to build,' but 'how we're going to pay for it.' I hope they present us something that shows the financial viability to do that."

Legis. William Lindsay III (D-Bohemia) said he asked Cameron about Newsday's findings and said Cameron assured him Jones Lang LaSalle has alternative methods of financing if Ronkonkoma Vision Project LLC's funding sources do not pan out. He said the development team is moving forward with community meetings scheduled to take place in September.

Legislator Tom Cilmi (R-Bay Shore), whose district includes the arena site, said he expects the county legislature will conduct its own due diligence on the project's financiers when more detailed information is presented.

"I have significant concerns about the size of the development, particularly as it relates to the road infrastructure that would be necessary, and the sustainability of an arena," he said. He also questions whether the community at large will support this proposal for the same reasons.

"I hear from many Ronkonkoma residents that they learned about the proposal for the first time," he said, "when they saw it on the front page of Newsday."

With David M. Schwartz

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