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Local Planning Committee holds first meeting as process begins on allocating $10M for downtown projects

The process of determining how to spend a $10 million state grant began Monday, as the Local Planning Committee for the grant held its first meeting Monday afternoon and the first of three public participation sessions was held later that afternoon. 

The town was awarded a Downtown Revitalization Initiative grant in January.

New York State has been issuing $10 million grants in one of 10 regions of New York for five years. Last year, the pandemic prevented the issuance of the grant, so this year the state gave out up to $20 million in grants for each region.

The Town of Riverhead and the Village of Amityville each received $10 million grants in the Long Island region.

The Local Planning Committee is co-chaired by Riverhead Town Supervisor Yvette Aguiar and Dave Kapell, a former Greenport Village mayor as well as a member of the state Regional Economic Development Council. 

“This session is for you,” Ms. Aguiar said to the audience. 

Mr. Kapell said he’s lived in Greenport for 43 years and over that time, “I’ve been a regular visitor and patron and customer of downtown Riverhead, going there several times a week. So I’ve had a chance to become familiar with the downtown.”

Mr. Kapell said he’s seen Riverhead as it was “on the way down, and now is seeing it on the way up.”

He added, “I’m very pleased to be associated with this effort.” 

Jeannette Rausch of the Department of State, who oversees the DRI program, said the grants must be used for projects that conform with the state’s fundamental goals. These goals include creating an active and desirable downtown; attracting new businesses; enhancing public spaces for arts and cultural events; building a diverse population; growing local property tax; providing amenities and reducing greenhouse gas emissions. 

The process is expected to take five to six months, officials said. 

Beginning with Monday’s meeting, members of the public were asked to suggest projects on which the grant money can be used. They were asked questions including what they felt downtown Riverhead’s greatest attributes were and what they felt the role of downtown Riverhead was in the greater region. Their answers to questions were written on cards and handed to moderators. 

Some of the strengths respondents saw in downtown Riverhead included its restaurants, the aquarium, special events like the Cardboard Boat Race, the Peconic River, Suffolk Theater, Alive on 25 and recently built apartments. 

Other respondents wanted no more apartments downtown, and audience members debated each other on whether downtown is safe or not. 

“This is not the 1990s, it’s safe downtown,” said James Foster, who owns a store downtown. He said people need to get the perception that downtown is unsafe out of their heads.

But another resident who lives on East Main Street said police actually ask him if they can look at his security camera footage when crimes take place.

“This is not Queens,” one of the respondents wrote in response to the new apartments being built downtown. 

Several respondents felt youth were not being well served downtown, and that there was nothing for them to do. One respondent suggested bringing back the Riverhead Blues Festival, which was very popular several years ago. 

Several people cited the upcoming Town Square, which has yet to be built, and the Long Island Science Center’s proposed planetarium as strengths of downtown. 

Some speakers said they don’t want Riverhead to be like Greenport. They want it to be unique. 

Mr. Kapell said that when they were rebuilding Greenport in the 1990s, they had to convince people that they were not trying to be like Sag Harbor.

Ms. Rausch said the state starts with the projects submitted by the town in its application, such as the town square and the Long Island Science Center.

She said it’s best that the municipality apply for a funding amount that’s far above the $10 million.  

She said it’s hoped that the projects the state funds will stimulate other investment in the town.