2021 Public Servant of the Year: Dawn Thomas

If you’ve walked along Main Street in Riverhead lately, you may have stopped to admire a newly opened vista of the Peconic riverfront across from the Suffolk Theater.

In October, demolition got underway on two blighted buildings, including the former Swezey’s department store, to make way for a new town square.

Many have remarked that no other downtown on Long Island has a river running through it, but you may have never known it from Main Street. For decades, some iteration of a “town square” to provide outdoor public space and reorient the downtown area around the riverfront has appeared in master plans and revitalization studies.

Now, it’s finally becoming reality. 

If there was ever a moment to believe in downtown Riverhead, this is it. And that’s largely because of Dawn Thomas, Riverhead’s Community Development Agency administrator and the News-Review’s 2021 Public Servant of the Year. 

“She wants nothing but for Riverhead to succeed,” Town Councilman Tim Hubbard said in a recent interview. “All you have to do is talk to her for a couple of minutes and you’ll realize that.”

Mr. Hubbard credited Ms. Thomas and her staff for their work on the town square project, from coming up with plans and obtaining an $800,000 state economic development grant to working with the Town Board and New York State Historic Preservation Office to see it through.

He said Ms. Thomas wrote an “impressive” grant application for the state’s $20 million Downtown Revitalization Initiative, the Long Island winner of which has yet to be announced. “Everyone’s biting their nails,” Mr. Hubbard said — and crossing their fingers.

Ms. Thomas, a Jamesport resident, served as the town attorney for a decade before leaving in 2011 to work as a law clerk for State Supreme Court Justice Ralph Gazzillo. In 2016, she returned as deputy town attorney and was appointed CDA director in 2017.

“She is an asset to this town,” Supervisor Yvette Aguiar said, describing Ms. Thomas as a “smart, professional forward thinker” who worked through the height of the pandemic to keep plans for the town square on track. “They wanted this to take off and they succeeded,” Ms. Aguiar said.

On demolition day, a crowd gathered to watch the buildings fall and inevitably reminisce about the good old days.

Riverhead has certainly changed since then and it hasn’t always been easy to cheer for the downtown area. But Ms. Thomas has remained steadfast and optimistic in her vision for revitalization that includes redevelopment, a mix of new businesses and expanding the focus to include areas like the Riverhead Long Island Rail Road station.

“I’ve lived in Riverhead my whole life and there’s people that have known nothing but these vacant buildings,” said Steve Shauger, president of the Business Improvement District, describing a sentiment many newer residents may share.

“People have fond memories, but we need to start making changes for the betterment of our town.”

As BID president, Mr. Shauger said Ms. Thomas has always been supportive of downtown events. “She’s always there to lend some foresight as to what challenges we might face or even make recommendations of how our events could be better,” he said.

The scope of Ms. Thomas’ work spans far beyond Main Street. State Assemblywoman Jodi Giglio, who served for more than a decade on the Town Board, said Ms. Thomas was instrumental in projects like the EPCAL walking trail and securing federal opportunity zone designations to attract development interest.

Under her leadership, the town is also seeking funding to help cover the estimated $13 million to hook up homes in Manorville and Calverton to public water.

Ms. Giglio said she admires Ms. Thomas’ enthusiasm and personal connection to the community. “She’s always coming up with innovative and creative ideas. And when you’re on the ball field or lacrosse field, you’re listening to what the constituents are saying.”

In addition to her work at Town Hall, Ms. Thomas has coached youth soccer, softball and lacrosse for the Police Athletic League and was involved in Riverhead school organizations while her four children were students. A member of the Riverhead Republican committee, she was also the first woman to be named grand marshal of the Jamesport St. Patrick’s Day parade in February 2020.

Mr. Hubbard said one program in particular he attributes in part to Ms. Thomas is the girls’ lacrosse, which she helped kickstart at the PAL level years back.

“She took an interest and provided a lot of girls with the opportunity to play lacrosse,” he said.

Joseph Maiorana, a project supervisor for the CDA, said he’s proud to work for Ms. Thomas and measures her success by much more than just grant dollars secured.

“Working in government, it’s important to never be concerned with who gets the credit at the end of the day,” he said. “Nothing that our office does is Republican or Democrat. What we do really benefits each and every resident. She always tries to advance the ball down the field regardless of who the supervisor is or who’s on the Town Board. She really cares about the future of Riverhead.”

Previous Winners

2019: Allen Smith
2018: Dashan Briggs
2017: Richard Ligon
2016: Tom Lateulere
2015: Susan Wilk
2014: Carl James
2013: Dennis Cavanagh
2012: Ed Romaine
2011: George Woodson
2010: Robert Brown
2009: Barbara Grattan
2008: Liz Stokes
2007: Michael Reichel
2006: Gary Pendzick
2005: The Riverhead Ambulance Corps
2004: Richard Wines
2003: Ken Testa
2002: “KeySpan Coalition”
2001: Ed Densieski
2000: Judge Richard Ehlers
1999: Barbara Blass
1998: Vicki Staciwo
1997: Lenard Makowski
1996: Buildings & Grounds
1995: Jack Hansen
1994: Jim Stark
1993: Rick Hanley
1992: Lawyer Jackson
1991: Andrea Lohneiss
1990: Monique Gablenz
1989: George Bartunek
1988: Patricia Tormey