A little over a year ago, the owner of the Blue Door gallery was in danger of closing, a sign for the long-shuttered Ben Franklin’s Crafts still hung above a vacant storefront and the troubled Casa Rica Restaurant and Bar was making negative headlines in this newspaper.
But today, the Blue Door is still open, though in a smaller location a few feet away, The Red Collection consignment shop has taken over at the former craft store and the already-popular Cody’s Barbecue now occupies the space where Casa Rica once was.
Those were among the positive changes downtown that all five members of the all-Republican Town board sought to highlight at a press event Monday that was dubbed a “ribbon cutting tour,” which aimed to point out the progress being made in the long-beleaguered area.
The Town Board members, including Supervisor Sean Walter, along with the two assessors who are up for reelection this year, Mason Haas and Paul Leszczynski, state Senator Ken LaValle (R-Port Jefferson) and county legislator Ed Romaine (R-Center Moriches), visited 12 businesses that recently opened, renovated or expanded.
And they held a ribbon cutting ceremony at every one of them.
The businesses included on the tour were the new Hyatt Place Hotel, The Riverhead Project, Cody’s, OMG How Cute!, the relocated Blue Door Gallery, La Mexicana grocery store, Dark Horse Restaurant, the expanded Athens Gyro and Grill, the Red Collection, Turkuaz Grill, the reopened Riverhead Diner, Long Ireland Brewery on Pulaski Street and the Off Main deli on Osborn Avenue.
“We are seeing the resurgence of downtown Riverhead, and that resurgence really doesn’t have a lot to do with things like condemnation and tearing down buildings and master developer proposals,” Mr. Walter said, referring to proposals by former supervisor Phil Cardinale, his rival in this year’s local election for supervisor who later mocked the event as a cheap publicity stunt.
Mr. Walter said town officials have instead gone out and found businesses to lure downtown and then worked to help those businesses open.
“We asked ‘What can we do to help you?,'” he said.
Mr. Walter’s predecessor, Mr. Cardinale, a Democrat called the tour a “dog and pony show” and claimed that all of the actual redevelopment projects downtown were started or conceived of during his administration.
While there are still a number of vacant storefronts downtown, Mr. Walter predicted Monday that there will be no vacant stores on Main Street in two years.
“We’re not where we want to be but we’re sure as heck of a lot further along than we were two years ago,” he said.
Mr. Cardinale said the only new structures built downtown in the past two decades were the Hyatt Place Hotel, the Suffolk Community College Culinary school, the new court parking by Railroad Avenue, and the Atlantis Marine World aquarium, which started when Mr. Cardinale was a town councilman.
“The entire south side of Main Street, from the Riverhead Grill to the Rendezvous, and the north side east of the Suffolk Theatre, is absolutely empty and has been for most of the past 30 years,” Mr. Cardinale said. “He can talk about redevelopment only when he addressed those two swaths of blight.”
Mr. Cardinale said he doesn’t consider it redevelopment to simply rent an empty storefront, move to a new location or open up a new business in the same location where an old business failed. And he still believes the town need to have a “master developer” in order to probably redevelop downtown.
“The things [Mr. Walter is] doing are the periphery,” Mr. Cardinale said. “That is not revitalization and redevelopment.”
On the other hand, Mr. Walter has insisted since he took office in January 2009 that downtown can be redeveloped by bringing in new businesses, one at a time.
The master developer during Mr. Cardinale’s administration was Apollo Real Estate Advisors, which purchased the Woolworth building for a multiplex theater and stores, and proposed to acquire other buildings in order to build apartments and stores. However, those plans never materialized and Apollo is currently said to be trying to sell the Woolworth building to developer Ron Parr, who is trying to bring a movie theater there.