03/02/13 12:00pm
03/02/2013 12:00 PM

BARBARAELLEN KOCH FILE PHOTO  |  A view of downtown Riverhead.

It was like watching protesters shouting and arguing with one another over a police barricade.

Michael White

Michael White

You’re probably familiar with the images from nightly newscasts: “Equal Rights for Gays!” one side would yell. “It’s Adam and Eve, not Adam and Steve!” the other would retort.

Except in this case, those who gather in Jerry Steiner’s Allied Optical store for the semi-regular “Gathering of the Misfits” lunch have all been hoping for the same result: a re-energized and revitalized downtown Riverhead.

They just disagree about whether it will ever happen.

Here’s what the skeptics — all beleaguered business owners Steiner calls The Misfits — were saying:

Downtown’s a mess. There are shootings, druggies and prostitutes in plain sight, not to mention legal users seeking treatment at the nearby methadone clinic at the County Center. People with bucks are scared of the place. The only businesses that seem to be doing well are delis and travel places catering to migrant workers. The “Arts Means Business” and “Live, Work, Play” slogans that have emerged during the latest attempt at a downtown resurgence are just a window dressing; everyone’s losing money hand over fist.

Government help, be it from the town, state or county, seems to be available for nonprofits, bigger projects and connected folks, but not for the little guy, the guy who’s been dumping his kids’ college funds into his shop for the past decade, waiting for the big turnaround. The little guys are tired of waiting and losing money and being nickel-and-dimed by the state and town at every turn.

In the meantime, they feel largely ignored by the police department — and even when there is a boost in police presence and foot patrols downtown, they say, it never lasts much longer than the initial newspaper photo-op. Things are going nowhere fast.

On the other side, for the optimists in the room who crashed the party — those Steiner calls “Men of Vision” — downtown Riverhead could be the pride and joy of the East End. Resurgences have happened in once-blighted and beleaguered areas like Patchogue Village and Bay Shore, they say. Why not here? Downtown Riverhead has even more to offer than those areas. It’s the county seat. It’s got history. It’s got a river running through it with access to the Peconic bays and beyond. Families can drive boats to downtown Riverhead, dock and then hop ashore and walk around, taking in the sights.

It’s got culture and diversity, grit yet arts, historical components yet modern structures like the Hyatt Place hotel. It’s got potential.

But guess what? Potential doesn’t pay the bills.

How can you argue with that?

If I’d sat in Jerry’s any longer my neck would have gotten sore from all the back-and-forth. Things got a little heated at times. And just like those rallies outside the Supreme Court, no one was changing anyone’s mind.

I chimed in here and there if I thought I had a nugget of information that could help someone make or finish a point, but didn’t offer much by way of opinion. I’ve always managed to remain an optimistic guy, but who was I to these business owners they should be optimistic, that everything’s going to be OK? I haven’t dumped any money into downtown.

In the couple of weeks since Steiner’s gathering I’ve figured out that good news is indeed on the way.

Experts say stress comes from uncertainty. It seems to me this argument, which has raged pretty intensely over the past decade, is coming to a head. We’re truly, finally going to get an answer.

There are now more reasons for people to visit the expanded aquarium site, three apartment projects are in the works for Main Street and the newly renovated Suffolk Theater is about to hold its first big bash tonight, Saturday. Without a doubt, we’ll be finding out in the next few years which way things are going to break. We’ll know whether downtown will re-emerge as the bustling business district it was in the ’50s and ’60s, or whether everyone’s going to lose their shirts and get out of Dodge, leaving it once again to the druggies and prostitutes.

In the meantime, what choice do we have but to be hopeful?

Most of the downtown business owners who drop in for a joke and a drink at Steiner’s have been on Main Street for a while now. Even in the last couple of years, they’ve been dumping even more money into their establishments — so I suspect hope is still alive in them, too. If things do turn around downtown and people start making money there, it will be up to the rest of us to give these guys their due.

They’ve been the true believers.

mwhite@timesreview.com