MIDTOWN — Madison Square Garden unveiled the final phase of its purported billion-dollar renovation featuring dizzying rafter-high seating, VIP rooms and state-of-the-art display screens at a star-studded event Thursday.
Hip-hop artist 50 Cent, Beastie Boys member Mike D, former New York Rangers and Knicks captains Mark Messier and Willis Reed and dozens more Big Apple sports legends, Sports Illustrated swimsuit models, Hollywood actors and musicians turned out for the event, many walking a blue-hued “red carpet” before heading into the press conference, which was held inside an airy new lobby area dubbed Chase Square.
Messier, Reed, Madison Square Garden Company executives and Gov. Andrew Cuomo each took a turn at the microphone to hail the arena's glittering new amenities. They include two suspended walkways with seating above the upper-level seats, additional luxury lounge areas, a new "GardenVision" multimedia center hanging above center court, and two 600-foot screens built into the ceiling in Chase Square, which are programmed with animations and montages to "enliven the fan experience from the first moment they enter the Garden," president and CEO Hank Ratner said.
But while celebrities and dozens of reporters filled the seats, and Cuomo took a spot on stage, city officials were conspicuously absent.
Indeed, for the Madison Square Garden Company, the event marked a welcome reprieve — and moment for self-congratulation — following months of criticism from local politicians and community groups.
In July, the Garden lost a battle with the city to renew its special operating permit in perpetuity, and it instead now faces a 10-year limit that could ultimately force it to move and make way for an expansion of Penn Station below.
What’s more, a bill is now making its way through the State Legislature that would strip the arena of its 31-year property-tax exemption — a tax break now estimated to be worth about $16.7 million a year.
Questions were not permitted during the press conference, and later, during a tour of the arena, Ratner deflected reporters' inquiries regarding the tax breaks or new 10-year permit.
“Today is not about the property-tax exemption," Ratner said. "What I will say is we spent a billion dollars of our own money to transform Madison Square Garden. That is not customary within the world of arenas or stadiums."
The governor also highlighted Ratner's contribution in his remarks to reporters at the press conference.
"One billion dollars was invested in this building — and you know what I love best about it? None of it was my money," said Cuomo, who has previously spoken out against the arena's tax breaks. “This is now going to be the economic engine for New York’s future.”
The unveiling capped the third phase of the billion-dollar project — an undertaking that started in 2011. The first game to be played in the new arena will be a Knicks preseason game against the Bobcats on Thursday. The first regular-season game will be the Rangers home-opener against the Montreal Canadiens on Monday.
“The World’s Most Famous Arena in the world’s greatest city had to be the best, and I think we succeeded,” Madison Square Garden Company executive chairman James Dolan said “I’m a very proud New Yorker today."