While most people were pleased to see new bleachers and a food truck pop up at Riverhead High School, some residents claim the district failed to inform the public about the purchases.
School board watchdog Laurie Downs of Riverhead said she’s been poring over old newspaper clippings since the bleachers were erected over the faded track and believes the decision to cover up the area once used for horse racing should have been discussed publicly.
“I went back to 1880s and I’m still looking” into the track’s historical significance, adding she’s learned her husband’s grandfather had a horse that raced there. “The fairgrounds isn’t just the district’s history but for all of Suffolk County. This is where presidential candidates would come to speak.”
One of those articles was from the Brooklyn Daily Eagle, which published an article about the fair and horse races on Oct. 7, 1887.
“The race commenced Wednesday afternoon, but was so stubbornly contested that it was not completed,” the article states. At least 15,000 persons were on the grounds, with hundreds of awards given for the best vegetables, flowers, decorations, wines and honey, among others.
The earliest record of the race track in an online database of Suffolk County newspapers quotes the Corrector of Sag Harbor in 1872: a race “broke up in a disagreement,” and all bets were called off and money refunded.
It has also been reported that about 6,000 people attended a memorial service on the fair grounds for President William McKinley, who was assassinated Sept. 6, 1901.
In addition to videotaping school board meetings for nearly 15 years, Ms. Downs said was on the district’s Community Partnership for Revitalization (CPR) team tasked with creating a district-wide capital improvement bond proposal, which voters approved in 2011 for about $79 million. She has also ran for school board in the twice in the last two years, failing to gain a seat each time.
“I don’t think the public realized they were taking away the track,” she said. “If they said, ‘We’re taking this away,’ then I would have been the first one standing up defending it.”
According to “Journey Through Time: The Riverhead Bicentennial 17792-1992” published by the Riverhead Bicentennial Commission, the last county fair was held at the property in 1941.
Ms. Downs said the district didn’t discuss the bleacher location, as well as a plan to scrap restoring the concession stand.
The district ultimately decided to purchase a food truck instead.
At the Feb. 24 meeting, the school board unanimously approved a nearly $60,000 contract with World Wide Trailer of Waycross, Ga., to purchase the mobile concession stand trailer, according to school board meeting minutes.
It is unclear how much the deal saved the district.
Emails from the News-Review starting from June 29 to Superintendent Nancy Carney requesting for information about the bleachers and food truck weren’t answered.
When asked for comment after the June 7 school board meeting, Ms. Carney described the food truck purchase as “a very cost effective alternative to refurbishing the concession stand,” but declined to disclose how much money it saved.
She also refuted claims that the decisions were not vetted publicly and said both purchases were discussed at school board meetings.
In particular, she said the plan to install the bleachers over the track was discussed at CPR meetings and at a school board meeting in June 2011, prior to the bond vote in October 2011.
The food truck was also discussed at a school board meeting, she said.
“It looks beautiful,” Ms. Carney said after Tuesday’s meeting about the overall athletic field project. “There was a lot of work done to it and a lot of effort put in. The community really supported the upgrades that have been done and I’ve heard nothing but positive.”
Parent Yolanda Thompson said she believes public discussions about the food truck should include details about costs associated with its usage and maintenance.
“What’s being done with these so-called savings? That should be presented to the public because it’s taxpayer money,” she said.
Ms. Downs said while she believes the food truck is a good idea and has heard many people in the sports community also say they like it, she believes the public should have had an opportunity to weigh in on the decision.
“It was my assumption we were going to get a rebuilt concession stand,” she said. “Nobody I know is against [the food truck] — they just feel they were misguided.”
A follow-up email to Ms. Carney last week requesting for information about the bleachers and food truck was not answered.
Captions: An undated postcard of the Riverhead Fairgrounds Racetrack/Collection of the Suffolk County Historical Society library archives; A photo of the Belcher Hyde Map, circa 1909, from Suffolk County Historical Society’s library archives. Credit: Wendy Polhemus-Annibel/SCHS