Riverhead Blues Fest sparks more gripes on Main Street

Finding a fenced-off downtown parking lot Thursday morning led some Main Street business owners to publicly criticize the Vail-Leavitt Music Hall’s upcoming Blues Festival, though the festival’s lead organizer said he had no part in the set-up.

Those business owners were also fuming over how much the festival is going to cost town taxpayers.

And while Riverhead Town Board members say it’s too late to make any changes now, they agreed to keep track of how much the festival is costing the town, and may take that into consideration leading up to next year’s event.

Downtown Business Improvement District president Ray Pickersgill showed before a public Town Board work session Thursday, frustrated that the riverfront parking lot was closed as crews began setting up for this weekend’s two-day music festival.

He griped to individual board members before the meeting started, and later Councilman John Dunleavy said that town buildings and grounds workers were responsible for setting up snow fencing around the lot early Thursday, not festival organizers.

Mr. Pickersgill also questioned why the town was using town funds to help police the Blues Festival.

“I’m pissed off that we’re using town money,” Mr. Pickersgill later said in interview, noting the event will not be free to local residents.

“The taxpayers are funding this event and the taxpayers are getting nothing for it,” he continued. “Why don’t we just write [the Vail-Leavitt] a check for $40,000?”

Mr. Pickersgill, who owns Robert James Salon on East Main Street, said he “doesn’t begrudge anyone for making money,” but objected to the taxpayer support the Vail-Leavitt was receiving for an event that charges admission.

“[The BID] doesn’t [charge] for the Country Fair,” he said. “Why doesn’t the Vail-Leavitt have fundraisers [to cover the costs]?”

Another local businessman, John Mantzopoulos, who owns the Athens Grill next door, was also unhappy with the parking situation and said the $2 million liquor liability insurance the town required restaurants to purchase in order to sell alcohol to outdoor festival goers would cut into the profits, and actually make things worse for local restaurants than a normal weekend.

“A lot of people think we as restaurants make a lot of money,” Mr. Mantzopoulos said. “But this year with the controversy over the Town Board enforcing the liquor license,  it will not be profitable [during the festival].”

But Vail-Leavitt theater treasurer Vince Tria said he didn’t close off the parking lot this morning, and said the BID’s events have cut off his access to the parking lot in the past as well

“Ray has to lighten up, Ray has to get a life, and he has to realize that he doesn’t own the parking lot,” Mr. Tria said.

Supervisor Sean Walter said the BID — a taxing district that collects money from downtown business owners for events, promotions and capital projects — does use taxpayer money, albeit from a different fund, to help pay for its events.

“What’s happening here is really not any different from what the BID does,” he said. “When [the BID] had their Mardis Gras event last year, that cost a lot of money.”

Mr. Walter said the town ordered the parking lot to be reopened, and said that while the parking situation and the Blues Festival may not be ideal, it represents a “successful” mission to bring more people downtown.

“[The Vail-Leavitt] is trying to use this thing as a fundraiser and the town’s position has always been to try to showcase downtown,” he said. “We all have the same goal.”

Councilman George Gabrielsen said that while it’s too late to change things now, he too was frustrated that the parking lot was closed two days before the event.

Mr. Gabrielsen said the Town Board will monitor how much it costs the town to help hold the festival, and will take that into consideration for next year’s event, possibly by billing the Vail-Leavitt.

“When the BID has an event it’s free to everybody,” he said. “There’s a big public benefit. The Blues Fest is not a public event.

Mr. Walter said he wouldn’t expect the town to bill the Vail-Leavitt for the festival, which is the nonprofit group’s chief annual fundraiser.

Mr. Tria said Thursday that if the town no longer wants to hold the festival downtown, he would move it elsewhere.

“Hey listen, if they don’t want it here, they can just let me know,” he said.

No Blues Festival was held in Riverhead last year due to infighting among some of the same downtown personalities.

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Tim Gannon contributed reporting to this article.