New group aims to unite efforts on both side of Peconic

Riverside sign

Change has been happening fast on both sides of the Peconic River in recent years — and more is on the way. Southampton Town has undertaken an enormous effort dubbed Riverside Rediscovered, which aims to make the economically depressed hamlet more business friendly and crack down on crime in the area.

In Riverhead, officials have pointed to the reopening of the Suffolk Theater and the addition of two mixed-use housing developments as examples that revitalization efforts are working downtown. Yet amid the progress,some have felt that efforts in the two neighboring communities have been stymied by the simple fact that they exist in separate towns.

One new group is hoping to bridge that divide. The recently formed Peconic River Community Development Alliance recently received a $20,000 grant to support an effort to move both areas forward together.

“We think the community felt there was a strong need to have a collaborative effort to bridge the gap between the Riverhead and Riverside sides of the Peconic River,” said the group’s president, Frank Zappone, who is also Southampton Town deputy supervisor.

[Related story: New group aims to unite efforts on both side of Peconic]

Known simply as “the Alliance,” the organization hopes to use the grant monies “to employ a community organizer to develop a community engagement and outreach campaign,” according to a recent press release. The group, which is in the process of obtaining nonprofit status, hopes that position will be the first step in building a broader coalition within the towns.

“We’re not there to replace or duplicate anything,” said Vince Taldone, former president of the Flanders, Riverside Northampton Community Association and one of six Alliance board members. A retired New York City planner who previously served on the Suffolk County Planning Commission, Mr. Taldone added that the group should not be thought of as “just another nonprofit.”

“We are trying to coordinate efforts of all these organizations,” he said. “We want to be supporting them.”

Because the Alliance was not formed before the deadline for the grant, FRNCA technically applied for and received the funding, which was given through the Long Island Community Foundation.

The Town of Southampton will act as fiscal agent for the grant to ensure proper oversight. However, the Alliance will still administer and guide the vision for how the $20,000 will be used.

The organization evolved, according to its board members, in the wake of an application to bring the public arts show WaterFire to the Peconic River. Supporters say WaterFire was considered integral to the redevelopment of Providence, R.I., bringing thousands to that city’s downtown waterfront on weekend nights to see works of public art — thus also bringing thousands to patronize local businesses and spur further economic development.

While few were opposed to the idea of staging WaterFire in the Peconic River when it was first proposed last year, a snafu arose because bringing it to town required support and planning from both sides of the river.

In the meantime, as Riverside has continued its own redevelopment effort — namely through Riverside Rediscovered, which connects a private developer with Southampton Town — it’s become ever clearer to some that the futures of both areas are interdependent. And while several organizations on each side of the river lobby for their respective purposes, none existed to bring them all together.

“I can’t think of another organization that basically works with both towns. Not in this perspective,” said Larry Oxman, a real estate agent and board member of downtown’s Long Island Science Center — and of the Alliance. “Certainly there are other East End organizations that would work with both towns … I see this organization as kind of bridging the two towns.”

Other members of the Peconic River Community Development Alliance board include Christine Kempner, Riverhead Town’s community development director; Siris Barrios, community liaison with Renaissance Downtowns, which runs the Riverside Rediscovered campaign; and Diane Tucci, a Riverhead native who has been working with WaterFire.

Ms. Tucci said Monday that WaterFire’s plan to come to the Peconic River are “kind of on hold” for now, as the area is in the midst of a major transformation. Suffolk County is likely to reconfigure the Riverside traffic circle by the end of next year and a 14-acre county park is slated to be created on the south side of the river. If development does come to Riverside, finding a way to handle its wastewater will become an issue — one that could involve tapping into Riverhead’s sewer treatment plant. But before that development can happen, the town would have to apply certain zoning to certain parcels.

In Riverhead, redesigning traffic has been considered under a state grant the town received, a 48-unit affordable housing development has been approved and the former Sears building — among others — recently received approval by the Landmarks Preservation Commission to be razed, meaning construction could be forthcoming.

“I think the towns need some more time before being ready” for WaterFire, Ms. Tucci said. In the meantime, she said, the $20,000 grant to hire a community organizer for the Alliance is a good first step for the group.

According to Mr. Zappone, the position will likely run through the fall.

“In a lot of ways, they are two separate places,” Ms. Tucci said, referring to the two areas north and south sides of Peconic River. “But in reality, it is one community. So this is something that can address that.”

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