Editorial: Town Board should bail on spending $450K for EPCAL studies

Supervisor Sean Walter should be commended for having the guts to admit what’s politically unpopular but quite true: The task of redeveloping the 2,900-acre Enterprise Park at Calverton is too big a job for the revolving cast of elected leaders in tiny Riverhead Town.

But that’s not to say that other levels of government haven’t let us down, too.

The endless clash among town, county and state officials has left us with a floundering industrial park. The unsightly infrastructure, overgrown runways, returning forests, even unused ballfields that cost taxpayers $1 million yet sit unused are all testament to government failure.

It’s been 15 years since the U.S. Navy deeded the former Grumman plant property to the town for $1. Aside from the town’s selling off the industrial core to a developer — who has since filled hangars and storage facilities and the control tower with a range of businesses — little has happened since. One could blame the failures on the bad real estate market, but remember, the property was in the town’s hands for all those years when the market was booming.

Probably nothing has convinced the current Town Board members that something has been amiss in Calverton more than their recent trip to Devens, Mass., a vibrant and bustling former military installation an hour outside Boston. Those beautiful buildings and houses and jobs up in New England would be enough to inspire any elected leader to want EPCAL back on track.

So while we agree all the involved government agencies need to work to get on the same page to get something going in Calverton, the supervisor and the rest of the Town Board should stop to take a breath before spending $450,000 of taxpayer money on hiring a planning firm to develop a reuse plan for the land. (A resolution authorizing the supervisor to enter the town into contract with the firm passed 4-1 at Tuesday’s Town Board meeting, but no checks have been signed yet.)

The idea of conducting more studies is not without merit. First, what the town has been doing so far hasn’t worked. Second, once the studies are completed, it’s expected that EPCAL projects would get approvals in much less time and with much less uncertainty and interference from outside agencies. Of course, agreement among government agencies is no guarantee a project will really happen, study or no study. It’s also no guarantee the town won’t have to spend more to make EPCAL more attractive to developers.

It’s been only a few months since the people behind two big development proposals, Riverhead Resorts and the Rechler hi-tech park, pulled out. But it’s been 15 long years since the federal government handed the EPCAL property to the town, which pledged to foster economic development and replace the 3,000 jobs lost when Grumman left.

It’s easy to see at this point why a big study might seem necessary. Before spending money, however, the Town Board should invite the region’s most successful business executives — people with real experience creating jobs — to roundtable meetings at Town Hall or elsewhere to see what they envision at the EPCAL site. Call on federal aviation officials to tour the site and offer ideas. Form a committee of developers, environmentalists and small business owners, and give them time to come up with solutions for EPCAL.

Meanwhile, the town should partner with state and county officials and all agencies with regulatory authority at EPCAL to chart a course for potential development and the approvals it will need. If this process fails to yield results, only then should the town consider spending money.

At least at that point, it would know it has tried everything else.