Special Report: The sad state of Wading River’s historic district

09/20/2013 8:00 AM |
BARBARAELLEN KOCH PHOTO | Canada geese graze and swans swim in the duck pond in Wading River near the business hamlet late Monday afternoon.

BARBARAELLEN KOCH PHOTO | Wading River’s historic district has seen the loss of mainstay The General Store, the high-end Amarelle restaurant and now, it appears, The Grind Cafe.

Mike Roth launched The Pizza Pie from a storefront in Wading River’s historic business district in 2000.

Business was good, so a year later he purchased The General Store, a deli and market housed in the adjoining building. When both businesses were fully functional, customers could walk back and forth between the two, allowing pizzeria customers to sit and eat in the deli. The General Store also provided space for events

BARBARAELLEN KOCH PHOTO | The Grind Cafe in the former post office in Wading River has a sign on its front door saying it will reopen soon. Its owner could not be reached for comment.

BARBARAELLEN KOCH PHOTO | The Grind Cafe in the former post office in Wading River has a sign on its front door saying it will reopen soon. Its owner could not be reached for comment.

“I had a Friday night buffet,” said Mr. Roth, who also serves as president of the Wading River-Shoreham Chamber of Commerce. “It was a nice thing. I would get 50, 60 customers at night. We would have private parties in there, the election night events, all those kinds of things. We can’t do anything now.”

The floor at The General Store collapsed in August 2011 due to flooding during tropical storm Irene. Since then, separate but related disputes with his business insurance company and his landlord  — all stemming from repair costs — have halted Mr. Roth’s progress on reopening the market. ‘For Rent’ signs now paper its windows.

The Pizza Pie, however small, has remained in continual operation. In fact, it’s one of the few shops left that draw people to the area on any regular basis.

Of the six adjoining businesses on Sound Road, including The Pizza Pie, The General Store and the former Wading River Garage, two are vacant and one – the Frog Lady clothing boutique – operates only on weekends. The nearby building known as the Red Barn houses a thrift shop that’s also open weekends only, as well as one of two area Cabinet Showroom locations. Tim Martin owns the Red Barn and the strip of buildings on Park Road, except for the garage property, according to property records. Mr. Martin declined to comment for this story.

The former Wading River Garage, at the north end of the string of shops, also sits empty. Across the street, on North Country Road, the building that once housed the upscale restaurant Amarelle, which closed in January, is for rent or sale. Same goes for the building two doors down, where space was once rented to the Wading River Community Journal newspaper.

The Grind Café, which opened on North Country Road in August 2011, appears to be the business district’s latest victim, having closed abruptly without explanation over Labor Day weekend. A sign posted on the eatery’s front door says it will reopen soon, but no other information is available. Multiple attempts to reach the café’s owner by phone and email were unsuccessful.

BOOM AND BUST

“I don’t think [the historic business district] could be described as healthy,” said Sid Bail, president of the Wading River Civic Association. “For whatever reason, they haven’t been able to put Humpty Dumpty back together again.”

The district has been plagued by problems for more than 20 years. In 1992, then-Riverhead Town Supervisor Joe Janoski said the area’s troubles began with the arrival of King Kullen supermarket, which was built on Route 25A in the 1970s.

“That certainly represented the shift in the business center,” he told the News-Review at the time.

There have been some booms and busts, so to speak, in the area ever since.

But Mr. Roth fears this latest bust may be a prolonged one.

He blames the business district’s apparent demise on a number of factors, all adding up over several years.

He agrees with some longtime hamlet residents that the 1990 relocation of the local post office from North Country Road, where The Grind Café has been operating, to the Route 25A area started the decline in foot traffic.

Still, Mr. Roth said that when he opened his pizzeria in 2000, the area’s storefronts were all filled — and with businesses that drew people to the area, including three antique shops. “This was a destination,” he said.

The antique shops and other stores were eventually replaced by less pedestrian-friendly businesses – financial planning and accounting shops currently sit among the lot – or have just sat empty.

Take, for instance, the building at 2028 North Country Road, across the road from The Pizza Pie. In January, upscale restaurant Amarelle went out of business after its executive chef and owner, Lia Fallon, was injured in a car accident, said Frank Guarino, the Wading River attorney who owns the building. Amarelle was open for three years and the building is now for sale or rent. After a stint at the Jedediah Hawkins Inn, Ms. Fallon is now executive chef at The Riverhead Project.

“It has to do with a sign of the times,” Mr. Guarino said of the restaurant’s closure. “Between tax law changes and a lack of any real business clientele in the area, it’s difficult in this day and age to maintain a high-end restaurant.”

It remains to be seen why The Grind Café shut down — if indeed that’s the case.

Mr. Roth believes businesses in the district might be suffering the effects of a measure instituted last year by both Brookhaven and Riverhead towns that bars visitors from feeding the ducks at the area’s treasured landmark, the Duck Ponds.

At the time, Brookhaven officials said waterfowl effluent was contributing to a degradation of water quality and that feeding the ducks could cause poor nutrition, spread disease and pollute the water, among other things.

“No feeding the ducks, turns into no ducks at the Duck Ponds,” Mr. Roth said. “The people come down and wonder, ‘Where are the ducks?’ They no longer come down with their families, or grandparents bringing their grandkids. It’s all over.”

Even the ponds themselves overflow, are overgrown and appear dilapidated on the Riverhead Town side of the border that splits the hamlet, Mr. Roth said, noting that promised infrastructure work has yet to be completed.

Activity at the decommissioned Shoreham nuclear plant property nearby has slowed over the past few years to next to nothing, with only a security guard manning the property now, Mr. Roth said. News last month that the Long Island Power Authority had ruled out moving forward with a 400mW power plant in Shoreham has spelled more bad news for business.

ALL ABOUT 25A?

Even though he heads the area’s Chamber of Commerce, Mr. Roth can’t help but feel that commercial development along Route 25A has served to prevent people from driving to the historic district.

“When I got here, there was no McDonald’s, no huge King Kullen shopping center,” he said. “Despite what the people say about loving the downtown [Wading River] area and the romance of it all, the people will stay up there; it’s just too convenient. All these little changes happen over time and all of a sudden, you’re downtown Riverhead.

“And this is bigger and affects more than you might think,” he continued. “Certainly, this affects people’s property values, having a desolate downtown.”

Riverhead Town Supervisor Sean Walter, who’s lived in Wading River for 22 years, said he’s seen several stores shuffle in and out of the area.

“It’s always been a bit of a struggle,” he said. “It’s problematic, and a lot of it has to do with the fact that there are shopping centers right up on [Route] 25A. Maybe there’s something the town can do.”

Mr. Walter said that, unlike downtown Riverhead — widely considered to be making a comeback — he hasn’t seen the level of interest in attracting new businesses to the hamlet.

“Nobody has come up to me and said ‘Listen, I would like to look at Wading River to open a potential store,’ ” he said.

Mr. Roth said he never imagined his pizzeria would become the anchor store in the historic center of the hamlet, which was settled in 1671.

Since the early 1700s, according to a 1992 News-Review report, there had always been a general store at the site of Mr. Roth’s deli and market, offering a place for locals to buy household essentials.

“Now, with The Grind [apparently closing], I’m the only one who’s left,” he said, adding he might not be staying much longer.

“I’ll just try to hold on as best as I can,” Mr. Roth said. “The best case scenario is that LIPA decides to put in a natural gas facility and there’s thousands of workers all day.

“Worst case scenario is status quo, nothing moves on and it becomes another downtown Riverhead,” he said.

Pamela Holz, owner of Cabinet Showroom, has been in the Red Barn building since October 2012. She said the space suits her specialty shop, though it’s complemented by another location near the Valero station on Route 25A.

“We also have an actual, functioning shop down the road that we’ve had for years,” she said. “This is to showcase the work that we do. I happen to like this part of Wading River very much. I happened to drive by and saw a big “For Rent” sign in the building.”

Mr. Bail’s advice to residents who don’t want to see the quaint business district disappear altogether is simple: Visit the shops.

“I personally try to patronize the businesses down there,” he said. “But if there are no businesses to patronize, there’s nothing much we can do as individuals.”

ryoung@timesreview.com

Comments

comments