People who wonder if Riverhead's downtown business district is really coming back from decades of struggle and vacant stores only have to look at the holiday window decorating contest run by East End Arts.

The wildly popular contest -- thousands of people look at the storefront displays and more than 100 take the time to vote for the best window -- is limited only by the number of vacant stores. East End Arts started taking applications from contestants this week. When the contest began three years ago, there were 24 vacant store windows to decorate. Last year, there were 17. This year, there are just 11. "There are fewer empty stores," East End Arts spokeswoman Stephanie Smith said.

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Riverhead Supervisor Sean Walter said he is glad to see the reduction in vacant store windows -- and in vacant stores. "Eleven . . . that's still too many," he said.

East End Arts does allow the stores that are in business to enter their windows in the holiday competition, but the snowflakes and Santas they usually put up don't meet the creativity level of the top window winners.

Last year, the winning window was "Occupy North Pole," decorated with dozens of angry cutout elves, carrying messages such as "Silent Night, Not Tonight."

Applicants must pay a $25 fee when they file, and applications and rules are available online at the East End Arts website or can be picked up at the East End Arts Gallery at 133 E. Main St.

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Applications are accepted first-come, first-served and windows must be decorated between Nov. 29 and Dec. 1. Voting is from Dec. 2 to Dec. 20, and people can pick up ballots at the East End Arts gallery.