Secret to Riverhead’s renaissance: grant money

In recent years, Riverhead has been swinging for the fences when it comes to seeking grant money — securing more than $26 million in public funding since 2017, according to town officials.

That bonanza includes a $627,000 grant to replace lead water-service pipes, an $800,000 state economic development grant for the Town Square project, a $10 million Downtown Revitalization Initiative grant and nearly $15 million in federal funding to connect dozens of homes in Calverton and Manorville to safe drinking water, after many of those homes’ wells were found to be contaminated with toxic chemicals. 

So far this year, the town has won a pair of $200,000 grants for riverfront projects and a $16,700 county downtown revitalization grant, officials said. 

New surveillance cameras being installed downtown are also the result of a pair of grants — $124,613 in community development block grants in 2019 and an additional $200,000 in 2022.

The private sector is also cashing in. Riverhead’s downtown Business Improvement District Management Association alone has nearly a quarter-million dollars in grant applications currently pending, according to the group.

The town’s community development department is hoping to land a long-sought $24.6 million grant to build a parking garage near the LIRR train station on Railroad Avenue, complete flood mitigation projects near the riverfront and construct a “Complete Streets” pedestrian path from the train station to Main Street. Complete Streets is a widely adapted approach to urban planning designed to better accommodate pedestrians, cyclists, motorists and public transportation facilities. 

When it comes to successful grant applications, Riverhead has some unique advantages over other East End municipalities. Decades ago, the town designated three key locations as urban renewal districts: the Enterprise Park at Calverton, the Railroad Avenue LIRR station and East Main Street. That designation gives the town much more leverage within these districts to negotiate with developers to get the best deal for the town. 

“It gives us tools that we don’t normally have,” said Riverhead’s community development director, Dawn Thomas. “Under urban renewal, I can make a deal to get what I need with a developer. So I can use the land to leverage what we need.”

She said that “the demographics of Riverhead are also very helpful to us in getting funding, because we are in an area of persistent poverty. Our downtown census tract is a historically disadvantaged area, social justice, all these things bear on our scoring.” 

Still, town officials and local business leaders said that the true engine driving Riverhead’s renaissance is Ms. Thomas and her community development team.

“In communities like ours, the only way for us to grow and revitalize and change — is with grant money,” said Kristy Verity, executive director of Riverhead’s downtown BID, who works closely with the town community development team to plan projects eligible for county, state and federal funding.

“I have the highest regard for Dawn; she’s done a fantastic job,” said Riverhead Town Councilman Tim Hubbard. “She has a very personal commitment to Riverhead. She really lives it.”

What’s more, he said, “we have the best [community development department] around — [assistant community project supervisor Joe Maiorana] and [associate administrator Carissa Collins], [grants analyst Frank Messina] … they’re unbelievable. They’re constantly working on grant money, putting grant applications together and submitting them [for projects] all over town.”

Ms. Thomas said that when she joined the community development department in 2017, “we had lots of high-level theoretical planning, but not detailed, strategic planning.

“So, we took the planning down from 100,000 feet down to 100 feet and said, ‘Okay, this is what we want, but what do we really, actually want and how do we get that?’ ” 

Ms. Thomas said that an enormous amount of work, thought and planning goes into each grant application. 

“Grants are like icebergs,” she said. “They look great on top and they’re just this giant pile of work below. That’s not easy work. That’s hard work.”

Persistence is also key to grant writing. 

Ms. Thomas said before Riverhead was awarded a $10 million state Downtown Revitalization grant last year, “we’d been applying since 2017.” 

Each successive year’s application was tighter and more fine-tuned, she said. 

“We always get mad when we don’t get it. But every year that we move further into the plan, we’re like, ‘I’m glad we didn’t get it last year, because now we know this.’ So, we were happy it took a long time because our plans were so distilled by that point, they were practically shovel-ready.”

Ms. Thomas said the very first step of the grant writing and application process is the simplest. Successful grant applications “always start with a vision — so what do you want?” 

“I always like to say, when you go to the grocery store, do you take your coupon book and buy things that you don’t need because they’re on sale? Or do you find the things you need, and then find the coupons for the things you need?’” 

Ms. Thomas said the projects and funding revolving around redevelopment of properties adjacent to the LIRR station are a good example of how Riverhead plans and executes development projects. 

“This is the worst area in town, by far,” Ms. Thomas said. “So how do you get someone to invest in that? What can we do as a town to draw in investments? We can give IDA benefits and we can give development yields,” she said, referring to tax breaks and increased density allowances for development projects, over and above what the area is zoned for. “We have to give something to get something.”

A transit-oriented grant in 2018 allowed the community development department to hire a planning consultant who did a detailed strategic plan and traffic analysis for how best to develop the area. 

With that information in hand, Ms. Thomas and her team presented a plan and the necessary zoning changes to the town board — which endorsed the proposal and passed the necessary zoning changes, “and within a month we had a developer” interested in the project, she said.

The project is well underway, she said. “So that’s how fast you can make it happen if you focus strategically.” 

Ms. Thomas repeatedly cited the town’s current Town Board and Supervisor Yvette Aguiar as key to Riverhead’s grant funding successes.

“This board has been incredibly brave … because they’ll pull the trigger on stuff,” she said. “Because the grants don’t just come in at 100% — it’s usually a match — so we have to pony up half to show that we have skin in the game, and they have to authorize that. 

“This is a very poor town,” she added. “The budget is to the skin at all times, and you never know what’s going to happen, so to say to them, ‘Okay, I want $60,000,’ I better be able to show why it makes sense.”

Ms. Thomas said increasing home and apartment ownership in Riverhead is a crucial part of revitalizing the area.

“For all these young kids in the 20- to 30-year-old range, it’s hard to afford a single-family house in Riverhead,” she said. 

“So young people can start at the apartment, move to the condo, and then move to the single-family home, while the older people are moving out of their single-family houses and going back to the condo or the apartment, or wherever they want.” 

Looking ahead, Ms. Thomas said her development department has for years been pursuing a $24.6 million grant — and may be close to winning it. 

“It’s a federal [Department of Transportation] grant, but we [want to] use it for downtown revitalization, as an alternative transportation network — it’s all walk and bike [lanes].

“This is our fourth round. We want people to be able to come to Riverhead, get off the train, see the … beautiful train station, feel welcome and know where they are going, so it’s about lighting, signage, pleasant sidewalks. We want people to understand where this path leads. 

Ms. Thomas — whose dedication to Riverhead is well-known around town hall — grew emotional when talking about her admiration for the Army Corps of Engineers as her eyes welled up with tears.

“The Army Corps of Engineers is just the most amazing agency the government has ever spawned,” she said, describing how the corps worked closely with town officials in 2020 and 2021 to create and partially fund a flood planning management study. 

Ms. Thomas said Riverhead’s portion of the funding came from grant money.