The old Suffolk Theater on East Main Street in Riverhead has sat empty for a quarter-century, a massive red brick remnant of the Depression.
Built by the Works Progress Administration, the structure over the decades fell into disrepair, its leaky roof and moldy plush red seats mirroring a smaller depression in the downtown. Store after store closed or moved a few miles away to larger shopping centers with plentiful patrons and parking.
Efforts to revive the theater fell short.
But Friday, the renovated theater will reopen as an arts center, ushering in a new chapter in its history with a ribbon cutting, followed the next day by a grand-opening gala. After that, a month of special events will show off the Art-Deco site.
Town officials hope the theater, at 118 E. Main St., which the town sold to Robert Castaldi in 2005 for about $700,000, and the crowds it's expected to draw -- with daytime movies, and nighttime shows and special concerts -- will be the centerpiece of their efforts to revitalize the downtown business district like recent ones in Huntington, Bay Shore, Northport, Patchogue and Westbury.
Riverhead officials often have proclaimed its downtown had turned the corner every time a new store opened, or talked about opening.
Despite the false starts, the vision of nightly big crowds filling the streets and wandering into stores and eating in local restaurants has generated a buzz about the future.
"I'm ecstatic," said Riverhead Supervisor Sean Walter.
The impact of a new arts center is difficult to predict. But, in general, it depends on the kinds of programs it offers and where it is, officials say.
On the rural East End, theaters and their arts programs are very important to bring in tourists and give summer residents something to do besides go to beaches.
Roy Stevenson, head of the Southampton Village Planning Board, notes that his village virtually closes down after dark, while neighboring communities just as attractive -- East Hampton, Sag Harbor, Westhampton Beach -- all are bustling with stores and restaurants all summer.
Those villages have a theater or arts center that can bring people to the downtown business district each night, many of whom will stay for dinner or arrive early and shop.
Dennis McDermott, who opened his restaurant, The Riverhead Project, in a closed-up bank building on East Main Street, said the theater is already a big improvement.
McDermott noted that the downtown business district is slowly filling with stores, but the potential crowds from the Suffolk Theater -- along with the 52 families expected to move into the new Summer Wind Square project down the block -- will have a huge impact. "The theater will really anchor that section of town."
Bob Spiotto, executive director of the Suffolk Theater, said local hotels and restaurants have already expressed interest in creative partnerships with his arts center. He expects that come spring, tourists will start looking at going to an arts center program, visiting a winery, going to a local restaurant or staying in a local hotel or bed-and-breakfast.