The Riverhead Industrial Development Agency, which grants tax abatements “to attract new businesses to Riverhead and help existing Riverhead businesses expand their operations and remain in Riverhead,” according to the organization’s mission statement, has come under heavy scrutiny over the past several years.
Even at the state level, Comptroller Thomas DiNapoli has called for more oversight of the abatements IDAs across New York approve. Meanwhile, in Riverhead, local taxpayers themselves have spoken up at meetings to protest what are often perceived as corporate giveaways.
Part of the comptroller’s legislation has been an effort to more effectively gauge the success or failure of measures taken by IDAs. That bill, which currently sits on the desk of Gov. Andrew Cuomo, is worth supporting.
But while legislators in Albany consider the role of IDAs on Main Streets across the state, another major project is seeking support right here in Riverhead. The Preston House — a 20-unit hotel with an adjoining restaurant — is currently being constructed by the owners of the Long Island Aquarium and Hyatt East End.
Atlantis Holdings, the parent company, has sought tax abatements in the past, to the chagrin of many residents. The organization was even granted a 10-year extension for the aquarium after its original decade-long abatement expired.
It is worth noting that properties that get assistance from the Riverhead IDA do pay property taxes (and other taxes: parking district, sewer district, etc.) after receiving abatements. The assistance is applied only to the increase in value the project provides.
The operative words here are “increase in value.” As downtown Riverhead has evolved in the 21st century, several anchor projects that have improved the area have benefited from the IDA’s help. In addition to the aquarium and hotel, the Suffolk Theater, the former Woolworth building, Summerwind and Thirty West Main are a few that stand out. Each draws visitors — and in some cases, full-time residents — who have a trickle-down impact on surrounding businesses.
Would these projects have been possible if they’d had to pay 100 percent of their tax bills from the beginning? That’s impossible to answer.
In a downtown area that continues working to get its legs underneath it, with several notable vacancies and now, a noteworthy new project on the horizon, IDA assistance remains a viable way to promote investment.
Nothing should be granted willy-nilly, of course — and smart planning by the town remains a separate but vital conversation in a larger discussion about downtown’s progress. But the owners of the aquarium and hotel have proven themselves to be responsible business owners dedicated to making Riverhead a more vibrant and stable town. The Preston House offers an opportunity to continue that trend, and deserves the support of the IDA.
Photo Caption: Downtown Riverhead looking south. (Credit: Andrew Lepre, file)