Guest Column: New board must revisit this project

A new year, a new decade, a new supervisor, new board members — but the same old question of whether it is in Riverhead’s best interest to have the Ghermezian family as our largest landowner and biggest investor, taking advantage of the controversial gift of 1,050 acres to the completely discredited Daniel Preston.

Those who favor the sale of EPCAL to Ghermezian/Preston say it offers the town significant employment, tax revenue and an opportunity to become a center of aerospace and technological development, an East Coast “Silicon Valley.”

Those who oppose the sale are skeptical that we have seen anything more than smoke and mirrors, telling us what we want to hear — first from Preston, then the Ghermezians. Sale opponents point out that the Ghermezians’ primary stock in trade consists of entertainment mega malls and gambling in Las Vegas. 

In 2018 the Ghermezians presented a lovely PowerPoint of an ecofriendly community-engaged edifice. It appears to have been replaced without explanation by 10 million square feet of industrial buildings bordering the runways. Which, if either, is what they really intend — or do they even know? 

What contract provisions guarantee EPCAL won’t become a cargo port or a casino complex, overshadowing the very successful Jake’s 58? Should we be concerned that MGM Resorts is lobbying hard in Albany for legislation to “support full-scale casinos downstate”? 

That the Ghermezians play politics to attain their goals is indisputable. They make substantial political donations, supporting a party and candidates to advance their interests, including access to public funding and bonding and presumably zoning and regulations. They punish those who don’t go along. Company representatives were accused in sworn testimony of bribing elected officials in Las Vegas and they have recently been charged with tax evasion in Canada.

Do we want to create an environment that is continuously fraught with suspect motives? Do we want to spend this new decade in the courts? The Ghermezians already promised $2.5 million for a town park conditioned on unanimous approval.

During the Qualified & Eligible hearing they also refused to restore to the town the 1,050 non-developable acres that Supervisor Sean Walter gave Daniel Preston at no cost and without explicit Town Board authorization in advance. Will the Ghermezians resist Supervisor Aguiar’s plan to require an environmental easement that permanently protects this priceless environmental acreage? 

We need to be alerted by articles about the Ghermezians and their business empire’s questionable financing in New Jersey, alleged bribery in Las Vegas, charges of tax fraud in Canada, pressure for public subsidies in Miami and large political donations. Here are stories you can look up:

“Power of Triple Five,” bribery in the gambling industry, The Las Vegas Sun (May 16, 2006).

“Mall Madness,” five-part investigation by WNYC New York Public Radio, Bloomberg Businessweek and New Jersey Spotlight on the American Dream mall in the Meadowlands, including the role of political donations. 

“American Dream, Source of Argument for and Against Reform of NJ Tax Incentives,” public financing for their megamall on the west side of the Hudson, New Jersey Spotlight (October 2019).

“The CRA is going after the wealthy family behind the West Edmonton Mall. Here’s why,” an investigation by Canada’s IRS, The Star (Nov. 15, 2019).

“Popular in Wisconsin: Cheese, the Packers and … Risky Bonds,” controversial financing used for the American Dream mall, The Wall Street Journal (Jan. 9, 2020).

“Mall of America owner puts megamall on the line for massive New Jersey project,” using equity in one mall to finance another, Minneapolis Star Tribune (Aug. 11, 2019).

“County banned American Dream mall subsidies, but public pays for needed sewer project,” Miami Herald (Dec. 18, 2018).

“American Dream’s new mega-mall in New Jersey had an early visitor: Miami-Dade’s mayor” and pressure for public financing of the Florida mega mall, Miami Herald (Nov. 8, 2019). 

We urged the previous board to take this history into account before voting on the Qualified & Eligible status of Calverton Aviation & Technology. The responsibility now rests on the new supervisor and board. Decisions made between now and May will permanently shape Riverhead, for better or worse.

Mr. McAuliff is a Riverhead homeowner for 26 years and a member of EPCAL Watch.