Expansion of Children’s Museum into Riverside takes new turn

Southampton Town adopted a resolution Tuesday authorizing Long Island Head Start to sublease part of its premises to the Bridgehampton-based Children’s Museum of the East End, allowing it to expand into Riverside.

Angela Huneault of Riverside Rediscovered, who’s also on the board of the Flanders, Riverside and Northampton Community Association, told members at a meeting Monday that negotiations were in progress between Southampton officials and the museum about potential use of the center. The project, three years in the making, was delayed as the town and CMEE tried to reach an agreement on operating the facility, according to Southampton Councilman John Bouvier.

“We have an issue with CMEE being able to afford this portion of operating that facility,” Mr. Bouvier said Monday, “and that’s the sticking point. It doesn’t mean that we’ve backed away.”

FRNCA president Vince Taldone said a separate community center was originally going to be constructed at Ludlam Avenue Park in Riverside. He argued the town was pulling the rug out from under the project and no longer supporting it.

“They’ve taken the money that was reserved for that project and spent it on other improvements to the park,” Mr. Taldone said.

That, according to Diana Weir, Southampton’s director of housing and community development, is inaccurate.

She explained that Community Development Block Grant funds, which were to be used for the project “come from federal sources and are provided to the town every year with a time frame as to when they will be spent. If you don’t spend it, you lose it.”

Though several years’ worth of CDBG funds were being directed toward the Ludlam Park/Riverside Rediscovered effort, part of which would include the construction of a building to be used as a community center and leased to CMEE, the project became fiscally impossible without CMEE’s financial participation.

“We only were getting $150,000 a year [in CDBG funds], so several years’ money was being accumulated to work on the Ludlam Park revitalization,” Ms. Weir said. “We had been setting aside money for about five years and the consultants cost the town about $85,000 … The proposal for the building that was going to be built and the extension that was going to be built came in at about $2 million. It was basically financially not feasible.”

She said the team at Riverside Rediscovered then decided to look into other options.

“The money that was set aside by CDBG has to be spent,” Ms. Weir reiterated. “We thought it would be spent on the building, but since we couldn’t do that, we kept it at Ludlam Park and are building a $250,000 playground.”

The town is only permitted to allocate 15% of its CDBG funding to nonprofits like CMEE. Given that there are multiple nonprofits on the East End, funds have to be distributed fairly, Ms. Weir said, and the town is limited in how much money is given out and how that money is spent. The funds allocated for the park did not go anywhere else, she said. They stayed in accordance with the project description, which called specifically for “Ludlam Park improvements” — not “building improvements.”

On Monday, Mr. Taldone said FRNCA was in a “desperate situation where we [were] trying to find private funding and private buildings in which we could locate the Children’s Museum to provide the services we want for the children of this area.”

Mr. Bouvier reiterated that the town had not given up on the project and that delays were related to the operating difficulties.

“We had gone through a period of time,” Mr. Bouvier said in a phone interview after Tuesday’s Town Board meeting, “where CMEE had originally indicated that they would be able to financially support some of the programming. When push came to shove, we realized that they weren’t as committed to doing that.”

Mr. Bouvier said the board ended up feeling as though they would then be asking taxpayers to subsidize a not-for-profit and pay for CMEE’s programming. The defense, he said, was that CMEE should play a role in paying the cost.

“I think they finally came around to that in concept, but then the difficulty became, where do we go? Where do we put them? So, at first, we tried the old police barracks at Riverhead circle, then there was a Head Start that didn’t really appear to work well. It’s just gone through a lot of iterations.”

Mr. Taldone said Monday that concerns involving operating expenses had not been previously expressed to him. He agreed to contact CMEE and deputy supervisor Frank Zappone for clarification. Mr. Bouvier offered to accompany him in that meeting.

“The first step here is to get them a home, which we’ve now done,” Mr. Bouvier said. “We spent CDBG monies because there was no movement on the agreement with CMEE and FRNCA. We will have that money again come the next fiscal year. That’s what I told Vince. I said, ‘You know, nothing’s dead here. We had a priority. If we did not spend our CDBG monies, we would lose that altogether.’ Being as there was no contract in sight, we just decided to go ahead and do that.”

Photo caption: FRNCA president Vince Taldone expressed concern about the CMEE developments at Monday’s meeting. (Credit: Mahreen Khan)

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