Walter hints at big downtown project in State of Town

Supervisor Sean Walter at Tuesday night's State of the Town address.
Supervisor Sean Walter at Tuesday night’s State of the Town address.

Supervisor Sean Walter again hinted at big things to come in downtown Riverhead in his annual State of the Town speech on Monday.

The supervisor, breaking from his written speech, told the tri-club meeting of the Riverhead Rotary, Lions and Kiwanis clubs, “We are not ready to announce plans today, but there are actions being taken right now behind the scenes, to fill the remaining vacancies downtown. We believe those actions are going to bear fruit.” 

Mr. Walter has been dropping hints about a potentially major downtown development in a number of venues lately.

In an interview on WLNG radio last Thursday, he said, “there is something we’re working on that is going to add a significant housing stock to downtown if it comes to fruition.”

He said this project would bring the number of apartment units in downtown to “somewhere south of 500.”

The three apartments buildings currently built or proposed for downtown Riverhead — Summerwind, Blue River Estates and Woolworth — total about 120 units.

And again last Thursday at a meeting of the homeowners association for the River Woods, Riverhaven and Lakewood mobile home parks, Mr. Walter said: “We’re working on another project on East Main Street. There’s really just one block of blighted buildings that are unaccounted for, and right now, we’re working with a group that is probably going to transform that entire block. And when that happens, I’m never going to worry about downtown Riverhead again, because it will be a vibrant downtown community.”

The supervisor has stopped short of giving specifics of the East Main Street project, such as who the potential developer is.

The rest of the supervisor’s State of the Town, made at the Sea Star Ballroom in the Hyatt hotel, stuck to a number of familiar themes he had already spoken about publicly, such as the redevelopment of EPCAL with an energy park and other potentially lucrative developments, the potential for the town to borrow against the value of the land at EPCAL in order to avoid a 16 percent tax increase brought on by a $4 million “structural deficit,” and the town’s efforts to revitalize downtown, including the successful farmers market that opened four weeks ago.

Below is the entire text of the supervisor’s speech, although he ad-libbed a few things from his written speech:

” I am humbled by the confidence placed in me by the people of Riverhead to return me as their Town Supervisor. As always, I pledge to you my hard work and devotion and I hope to be worthy of your trust. I want to that Riverhead Rotary for hosting this event along with the Riverhead Lions and Kiwanis clubs.

” Four years ago, I stood before you and gave my first State of the Town message. Four years ago, Riverhead had lost its way. Our Ski Mountain was a running joke. Downtown, our sidewalks were crumbling and our shops were closed. Main Street was a ghost town and the Apollo Project never got off the ground. Even our dinosaur museum had closed. In those days, only in Riverhead could dinosaurs go extinct twice.

” Four years ago, we were spending at three times the rate of inflation. Our budgets were prepared in a ‘never mind the math’ way. Our audits were two, ten and twenty years overdue. Our landfill was the most costly project in the history of the East End and EPCAL was a land where bad ideas came to die.  Riverhead was seen as the “Little Town that Couldn’t” and there was a glum acceptance from outsiders that we were a town that couldn’t get out of its own way. But we knew better.

“Four years ago, I came to office with the team of John Dunleavy, Jim Wooten, George Gabrielsen and Jodi Giglio and we offered a common sense agenda for our common sense town. We recognized that government is about choosing and among us we set about to make better choices. We pledged three simple things: One, we would get Riverhead on firm financial footing. Two, we would fix downtown and three, that we would tie our financial star to the proper development of EPCAL; that vesting hope in that vital piece of land could move this town forward once and for all.

“Here’s where we are today: We have reversed the spending trend. For the past four years this town has spent at a rate below inflation. We have completed our long missing financial audits. We were independently audited by the State Comptroller and received a fiscal clean bill of health.

” In four years, our Downtown went from a place of darkness, to a place where the light of the new Suffolk Theater marquee shines bright. New shops have come to town, there is new life, and family friendly events. Today, the Hyatt Hotel anchors East Main as Long Island’s only downtown hotel and Summerwind anchors Peconic Avenue.

“Our community garden arose from the ground up and we are home to two micro-breweries. Today, there are families moving in downtown and the streets have come alive with music and laughter and fun on the river. There is a hum and buzz downtown with our new Farmer’s Market drawing a thousand people a week to downtown creating an excitement we haven’t seen in decades.

” Look at where we are today, in these trying economic times we preserved vital land on Sound Avenue and are refurbishing  pocket parks all across town. We have kept the integrity of our hamlets from Wading River to Jamesport and rebuilt our water district. We have kept crime in check and dramatically increased the downtown patrols without adding an additional financial  burden to our taxpayers.

” And finally at EPCAL, which is our crown jewel and the place that we look to bring us long term prosperity, we have begun to execute a plan. We passed one of a kind landmark legislation in Albany that will cut through the bureaucracy, fast-track development in 90 days and allow us to unleash the private sector in a way this town has never seen.

” Today, we are putting the final touches on our Draft Environmental Impact Statement. We will be prepared to hold a public hearing on the draft impact statement in early April.  The  subdivision of the land will follow shortly thereafter so we can finally market it and create the long talked about good paying jobs and tax base at EPCAL. For it is not enough to just create service jobs on Route 58 this town must do more and we will do more at EPCAL for Riverhead and the entire east end of Long Island.

‘Today, before we have even hung out the “Open for Business” sign, offers are pouring in to buy our land at rates not seen since the days of ski mountain. Our future is very promising indeed.

‘ We knew reversing this town’s course would not happen in a day or even in a hundred. True and lasting change does not occur in a year, or sometimes even in four. Good words are nice but it is good deeds that matter and the work of change takes time. So the days ahead will be filled with toil and gritty follow through, as we go about converting promise into results–But, Four years later, from the privileged place we stand today, we can see the crest of the mountain; we are no longer in the deepest valley. The people of this town have risen up to meet the challenges of the past, present and will do so in the future.

” I am reminded of Matthew 5: Verses 13-16
“You are the salt of the earth. But if the salt loses its saltiness, how can it be made salty again? It is no longer good for anything, except to be thrown out and trampled by men. “You are the light of the world. A city on a hill cannot be hidden. Neither do people light a lamp and put it under a bowl. Instead they put it on its stand, and it gives light to everyone in the house. 16 In the same way, let your light shine before men, that they may see your good deeds and praise your Father in heaven.

‘Riverhead is a city on a hill that cannot be hidden but, we have miles to go before we sleep–and there is much hard work ahead… Tonight, I can tell you… that the State of our Town is good and getting better; that Riverhead is on the march and destined for a bright future.

‘Belief in a better future is the story of America and of this town…Since our founding, Riverhead has been a town of hard working people, the salt of the earth if you will, who have reverence for the God and who preserve and protect the land and the water. From farmers to fisherman, ours is a close knit community where people care about each other and know each other’s name.

“Riverhead is a town that gives of itself and is at its best when we come together to help one of our own. In Riverhead, we are diverse and we don’t hide that diversity; we celebrate it. Ours is a town of many heritages and ethnic groups. Ours is a town of young and old, long time residents and new arrivals. In Riverhead, we know our uniqueness is exciting, not something to fear. It is that variety, that makes us come together around a common purpose: We are the light and we are not afraid to show our good works. The love we feel for this place and for each other and that through our faith we know that the best is yet to come.

”Here in Riverhead, we certainly appreciate the positive examples of the successful towns around us but we are not looking to echo the blueprint of any other place. We are not trying to be New York City light. We’re not trying to be another “Hampton”.  We are not a “Village” or a “Station” or a “Burb” or a “Burg” we are proud to be from Riverhead. Here we have a “show me” nature, here we have the hardscrabble common sense of the business men and women we were at the town’s founding and are today. So tonight, as a family, here at our kitchen table, let’s plan the next year’s agenda, knowing that governance is never something you can ever completely plan. Storms and Albany and events, all have a way of changing even the best laid plans but here is this year’s agenda; let’s set out our priorities:

” First, we will continue to be frugal. Some would say cheap. We will stay committed to finding new ways to save money each day. We will add no new staff unless we can demonstrate how that position serves an indispensable function. We will use early retirement as an incentive to decrease our staffing costs. We will try to find matching money and grants wherever we can. We are also keenly aware that with mandates from Albany and Washington thrust upon us faster then we can cut costs, and having already cut, so deep we cannot save our way to prosperity.

“Next, we have said now for four years that the most important part of our vision for a prosperous Riverhead is the proper development of EPCAL. After four years of heavy lifting, I am proud to say we are just about there. Our biggest challenge and most important goal in the coming year will be to finish the EPCAL subdivision so we can begin to make land sales and sign leases at Calverton.

“Once the subdivision is created, our third priority will be to market the land. We have a great story to tell here in Riverhead but we live in a very competitive world. There are other sites within our region who have been at this much longer and projects across the Northeast that are equally worthy. We need to shine our light on who we are as a town and what EPCAL means to the region. A city set out on a hill cannot be hidden.

“There is competition from the South, and the West, and from abroad. We cannot fear this competition but must recognize it and embrace it. They will not necessarily “just come”. We understand we will have to tell our story and sell this site and get people to believe that Riverhead should be the place to bring or build their business…So, after we adopt the subdivision, our next order of business will be to craft our campaign for all to see in order to sell land at EPCAL. Through the hard work of people like Ken Testa we have already begun this process with the release of two request for proposals for our new 95 acre energy park.

“Our fourth agenda item is to some controversial, but to me, common sense. This year, we as a Town Board will seek to put into place a line of credit secured against our land holdings at EPCAL. When I came to office I said we would cut expenses and we have. I said we would submit realistic budgets and we have but from day one, I have clanged the warning bell that we have been living off our budget surpluses. I have said repeatedly that due to our landfill debt, the only way our town government has functioned, has been by drawing down on our budget reserves. I have talked openly about our structural deficit and how we need to produce our way out of our problems. I have said that one day we must pay the piper and he is calling.

“The good news in the gloom, is that while Riverhead is cash poor, we are land rich.  We may not have a big bank account but we have big assets and for the good of town, it is time to activate those assets. The proper use of credit built this country. The railroads, and highways of America were built on the prudent use of future dollars. The great infrastructure of this great nation was paved by the promise of a bright future. Few of us could afford the home we live in, or drive the vehicle we take to the job that pays our bills, without credit. For most of us, the education of our children, the planning of our retirement and all our tomorrows are built on a solid foundation of finance on future assets.

” This Board, this year, will seek out a line of credit, against our holdings at EPCAL to cushion against what would otherwise be a sixteen percent tax increase. This is not a step we take lightly, we understand its significance… but with land sales and leases so close at EPCAL, with the knowledge that our downtown is on the rise, with new revenue about to come online from activity on Route 58 and with the knowledge that we are living frugally at town hall, we do not think it would be prudent to ask each of you to dig deeper into your pocket when help is on the way. I could not in good conscious deliver a sixteen percent tax increase while we sitting on a 100 million dollar asset. So, this year, we will seek a line of credit as a cushion against temporary tough times.

“And finally, our year’s agenda calls for us to continue our march downtown. As one can plainly see, even in this difficult economy downtown is on the move. We are not ready to announce plans today but there is action behind the scenes that we believe will bear fruit downtown. Even if no transactions close this year, it is clear we are on the right course on Main Street.

“A few weeks ago, downtown became home to a new Farmer’s Market. A group of vendors that were housed in Sag Harbor needed a home, and with the help of Holly Browder and Christine Kempner we acted fast and captured them. There were many places they could go… and to be honest, Riverhead wasn’t first on their list. So we went to work. Empty buildings we have…so the call went out to convert one of our long shuttered storefronts into a market. It didn’t have heat. It didn’t have water. It needed paint and posters and signs and care. So, people like Ray Pickersgill and Jack Wade went to work and with a can-do, never take “no” for an answer attitude, they worked long hours and got the building into shape.

“Now, no one knew about this market. It was just an idea. We had to tell the story. With some publicity and ads and columns, and on Facebook– and by breathless excitement and word of mouth, the message went out the market was coming…and one Saturday we all waited to see, if we built it would they come?

” Well, before the key went in the door, I am not even sure the lock on the old building worked, they were lined up three deep, peering in the windows and waiting for the lock to click open. They jammed the streets and they parked across town and they trudged through the snow and they came with baby carriages and with dogs. They swept through the market, they cleaned off the shelves, they marched through downtown and neighbors said hello to neighbors and they visited the shops and they had lunch on Main Street and they laughed and they stayed and they lingered. And on a grey day, the light of Riverhead shown through the clouds. Downtown wasn’t so bleak anymore. Main Street peacefully co-existed with 58. The naysayers had nothing. The little town that couldn’t, did once again.

“The story of Riverhead is about our people. We are a compassionate group who know how to take care of each other and those in need. One needs only to witness the recent public hearing for Mainstream House to know what this town is about. We are not like other towns and needn’t be. Much the same way that I know that Main Street can coexist with Route 58 and both can be successful; I know that Riverhead can take care of their poor and people in need and its residents will rise up to be the light of the world. A light that will shine bright on all that enter this town.

“Once again a say the state of the town is strong and getting stronger every day. I want to thank my wife Cathleen and my three sons Zachary, Timothy and Gregory for supporting as your town supervisor. I would also like to thank my staff Heidi, Jill Tara and Carol for all of their hard work and dedication to this town.  Thank you and may God continue to bless this town and all of you.