Optimism over downtown Riverhead's revival
For more than 30 years, since the Long Island Expressway reached Riverhead, its Main Street shopping district has been in a slide.
As customers learned they could easily travel elsewhere to shop, more and more stores closed.
There have been pockets of progress, such as the opening of an aquarium and a hotel on East Main Street. But nothing to reverse decades of stagnation -- until now, town officials and business owners say.
Boosted by new stores, restaurants, housing and an infusion of grant money, they said, the downtown redevelopment effort is finally gaining traction.
"In the last year, six of us have [opened] stores here," said Nick Attisano, 41, who moved his Twin Forks Bicycles store to East Main Street a year ago. There is "a funky clothing shop, a ballet studio, the Blue Duck bakery . . . Downtown Riverhead is going to pop."
By spring the newly renovated Suffolk Theater is set to reopen on East Main Street as well as SummerWind Square, a four-story mixed-use building with 52 units of workforce housing, a restaurant and 5,700 square feet of retail/commercial space. That will finally put enough people in the downtown area every day to ensure it will continue to grow, Town Supervisor Sean Walter said.
Riverhead's downtown redevelopment efforts also have been boosted by a $250,000 state Main Street community renewal grant, which Walter said will fund up to 45 new rental units above stores and at least six commercial renovations.
"You have to reach a critical mass," he said. "We've got it now. We're following the Patchogue model."
Patchogue, like Riverhead, had a stagnant downtown. But a wave of new development, including new condominiums and the reopening of a movie theater, kick-started the local economy.
Some blamed Riverhead's problems on the LIE opening in the 1970s, which allowed shoppers to get to malls and avoid parking problems. Others cited the growth of big-box stores a few miles away on the Route 58 corridor, a busy shopping area that looks more like Centereach or Huntington than rural Riverhead. And still others said the small mom-and-pop stores found it hard to meet the demands of a changing group of shoppers.
Town planners point out that Riverhead doesn't have shoppers regularly walking in the downtown area, a situation expected to change when 600 people come out after attending a movie in the Suffolk Theater, and hundreds of others are living in apartments above the stores.
Dennis McDermott, who opened his new restaurant, the Riverhead Project, in what had been a closed bank building on East Main Street two years ago, said that change has already come.
"Riverhead is not the same place it was two years ago," he said. "It was languishing. It couldn't get out of its own way . . . but now I see it. I feel it."
GRANTS PROVIDE BOOST
Riverhead town has gotten four special downtown development grants for its Main Street business district since 2004, totaling $1,150,000. Typically, those grants cover three-quarters of the cost of renovations by store owners.
Town Supervisor Sean Walter said the current $250,000 grant will fund up to 45 new rental units above stores and at least six commercial renovations.
A good part of that grant money is expected to be used for redevelopment of the old Woolworth Building on East Main Street, the biggest empty store in the downtown shopping area.
Among the other grants obtained by Riverhead under the program was $250,000 that went to renovate the art-deco Suffolk Theater, built as an 800-seat movie house in 1933 and closed for nearly 30 years; $150,000 for the new Dark Horse restaurant; and two $50,000 grants, which went to two restaurants -- The Riverhead Project and Jerry and the Mermaid.