Is a theater the key to revitalizing Main Street?

09/16/2010 12:00 AM |

Councilman Jim Wooten addresses the Eastern Long Island Executives business roundtable at Digger’s Monday night.

A key to revitalizing downtown?

The arts.

At least that seemed to be a consensus among people at Monday’s meeting of the Eastern Long Island Executives at Digger’s restaurant in Riverhead, where Town Councilman Jim Wooten was the guest speaker. And the revitalization of Patchogue Village seems to be the blueprint that many say Riverhead should follow.

Mr. Wooten said he’s talked with Patchogue Mayor Paul Pontieri about that village’s turnaround.

“It all started around the theater in Patchogue Village, which the community decided to rally behind,” Mr. Wooten said.

In Patchogue Village, an old theater on Main Street that was first opened in 1923 had fallen into disrepair and sat vacant for more than a decade in the 1980s. In 1997, the village board decided to acquire the theater, and some private businessmen came up with the money for the purchase. The village then acquired grants to renovate it, some empty buildings nearby were torn down and by 1998 it was reopened. The 1,166-seat theater now operates as a nonprofit performing arts center and is the largest theater on Long Island.

“We had the chance to do that in Riverhead but it was defeated,” Mr. Wooten said, referring to a 2001 townwide referendum to authorize an additional $4 million to renovate and reopen the dormant Suffolk Theatre, at a time when it was still owned by Riverhead Town. Residents overwhelmingly voted down that proposal.

Mr. Wooten said the Patchogue Theatre now takes in enough money to meet the payments on the bond used to acquire it.

“It’s not a money maker for them, but what it did for their village was unbelievable,” Mr. Wooten said.

The Suffolk Theatre was sold to a group led by Bob Castaldi in 2005, but the town then became involved in litigation with that group after it failed to get the theater up and running. The new Town Board dropped the litigation, and Mr. Castaldi is again working to restore and reopen the 77-year old theater as a performing arts center and single-screen theater.

“The theater saved downtown Patchogue,” said ELIE member Dory Tooker. “And the theater sparked the restaurants.”

“You look at Westhampton Beach, Bay Shore, Patchogue, there’s always the core of the arts that grow the community and the economy,” said Pat Snyder, the executive director of the East End Arts Council in Riverhead. “People are coming in for the arts and then they’re attending restaurants, so even though the arts aren’t a money maker and they often need to be supported, there still are really good reasons to support the arts because ultimately, it benefits the entire town.”

“We really want to get that Suffolk Theatre open,” Mr. Wooten said. “It really should have been open eight or nine years ago.”

A motion picture theater is also something Riverhead officials have been trying to lure to town, specifically to downtown, for years. Supervisor Sean Walter has said he’s trying to bring a movie theater downtown, although he’s reluctant to make public the status of his efforts for fear it could affect the deal.

“A town this size and we don’t have a movie theater? It’s absolutely insane that we don’t have a movie theater,” Mr. Wooten said.

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