As retailers struggle, Riverhead officials look to help Tanger survive

Back in the mid-1990s, some feared that the fledgling Tanger Outlet Center might hurt other local businesses and, as a result, Riverhead Town officials put limits on the type of uses allowed there.

Now, with online retail so prevalent, Tanger is the one seeking help from town officials. 

The mall’s operators have requested that the permitted uses at the outlet center be expanded, and last week Town Board members voiced support for Tanger, noting that it is Riverhead’s biggest tax revenue generator. Ultimately, however, board members signaled they would approve fewer than half of the additional uses requested. 

The board held a public hearing last Wednesday on a number of proposed new uses that could be permitted at Tanger, which is the only property in town that falls under the “manufacturers outlet” zoning designation. 

For starters, the proposal changes the name of that zone from the “manufacturers outlet center overlay zone” to the “manufacturers outlet and retail sales center, interior design showroom and trade center and specialty grocery, food stores and markets center.” 

Prohibited uses would include flea markets, gas stations, motor vehicle sales, car washes and printing plants. Medical offices are also prohibited, as are hotel lodging and overnight accommodations, beauty parlors, adult stores and sales of cannabis and electronic cigarettes.

The proposal limits the number of food courts to two, but it gives the tenant the option of replacing one of the food courts with a restaurant. That restaurant, however, would not be permitted to have signage on Route 58, according to deputy town attorney Anne Marie Prudenti. 

Also permitted at the site would be indoor activities including an arcade, virtual reality games, billiards, Foosball, yoga and fitness studios. 

An indoor theater was previously permitted at Tanger, although none was ever built. The plan now proposed would allow new theaters that offer dining, comfortable seating and alcoholic beverages, Ms. Prudenti said. 

“This is a national trend that’s going on because retail has taken a big hit with online shopping,” Supervisor Tim Hubbard said of the mall operator’s request. 

The outlet center has also become a significant target of retail crime.

Town Board members said they support the proposal, which has been in the works for two years, according to Ms. Prudenti.

“This is necessary, everybody knows what’s happening in retail,” Councilman Bob Kern said.

The Riverhead Chamber of Commerce also sent a letter in support. 

But not everyone shared in the enthusiasm.

“I ask you to be cautious,” said builder Richard Israel. 

“Tanger is a great thing for our town,” he said, calling it a “tremendous attraction.”

But Mr. Israel also recalled that when Tanger first opened, town officials hoped it would bring commerce to downtown Riverhead. “I think history has shown us that it has not done that,” he said, adding that many stores won’t come to Riverhead because Tanger is there, and those stores can’t compete with Tanger. 

While the outlet center pays a lot in taxes, that’s only because of its square footage, Mr. Israel said. 

Cindy Clifford of Riverhead said that back in 1994, Tanger was expected to revive downtown

“That did not happen,” she said. “Tanger became another nail in the coffin for Main Street. I’m concerned about Tanger becoming bigger and better and hurting stores on Route 58.”

Several Route 58 stores have recently closed, including Christmas Tree Shop, Bed, Bath & Beyond and Big Lots. But officials said those stores were closed as part of nationwide downsizings, and that Tanger had nothing to do with their going out of business.