Editorial: No turning back now

As the long-awaited votes were cast last week to determine whether Calverton Aviation & Technology can proceed with the purchase of 1,640 acres of land at the Enterprise Park at Calverton, town leaders accurately described it as the biggest decision they’re likely to make in their current roles. More than one speaker, in addition to the elected officials, noted the effect this decision will have on their children and grandchildren.

After so many failed proposals and empty promises, EPCAL’s future finally appears to be taking shape. The Town Board’s 3-2 vote declaring CAT qualified and eligible will resonate for decades.

This would seem a time to celebrate. After all the years since that land was gifted to the town, the debate over what to do next can come to a rest. Bringing aviation back to an area that was synonymous with Grumman and the F-14 Tomcats would appear a perfect fit.

And it might be. Still, we can’t help but wonder if the vision outlined by CAT will actually become reality.

We’re now at the point of crossing our fingers and hoping Triple Five will deliver on its promises if the $40 million sale is finalized. For Riverhead, there is no turning back.

There’s reason to be optimistic. The preliminary plans CAT provided to the town in August featured fancy renderings of an eco-friendly building with a mom and her child happily walking along a pathway on the large green roof that can also accommodate community events and recreation. Another image showed the inside of a hangar with a drone. 

“The existing airstrip will be put to use for research and development of aviation and aerospace technology, and the facility will support these endeavors with areas for testing and manufacturing equipment for the aviation industry,” the CAT pamphlet noted.

But there are also reasons to be cautious. Triple Five’s lack of any experience in aerospace — its biggest accomplishments have been in building large malls — raises serious questions that have never been fully answered. And its shady dealings in other communities have caused many to wonder if the organization’s long-term plans go beyond aviation. A mall? Casino? Housing?

A 2006 Las Vegas Sun article outlined the testimony of an official who reportedly accepted $3,000 a month in cash from Triple Five Nevada Development Corp. just months after voting in favor of a casino proposal. She accepted money for three years, beginning in 2000, the paper reported. It would be unfair to assume any officials here would be accepting under-the-table payments without any evidence, but hearing those types of stories creates cause for concern about Triple Five’s ethics.

“Proponents of the deal continue to speak of great benefits to the town financially,” said Councilwoman Catherine Kent, as she cast a no vote. “Will taxpayers really benefit financially when CAT has been clear from the beginning that they will seek every tax break from the town and our IDA? With a low price tag on this piece, what is our assurance they will not flip it shortly after the sale?”

As Councilman Tim Hubbard pointed out, last week’s vote did not pertain to the contract. That ship had already sailed. Mr. Hubbard and Councilwoman Jodi Giglio both voted against that contract in 2017, under the previous Town Board. But this vote came down to determining whether CAT was capable of developing the property and coming up with its $40 million cost.

“Aerospace is the future,” Ms. Giglio said. “The old Grumman is gone. And so are the jobs they took with it when they left. These are the jobs of the future. $40 million when they close, $4 million taxes on vacant land — and there are no tax breaks on vacant land.”

The people of Riverhead will be watching closely as this deal progresses toward the finish line. If the proposal develops as promised, our town officials will be hailed as the visionaries who finally delivered on EPCAL. If not, there’s no second chance.