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Riverhead officials hope Edgar Allan Poe Festival adds to downtown's momentum

Kathy Curran, executive director of the Suffolk County

Kathy Curran, executive director of the Suffolk County Historical Society in Riverhead, was joined by Noel Gish, Nancy Kouris and Warren McKnight (with his Mountain Dulcimer) at the opening reception Oct. 10 of an exhibit on writer Edgar Allan Poe. From Halloween through Nov. 2, Riverhead will host the first Edgar Allan Poe Festival. Photo Credit: Daniel Brennan

Kathy Curran doesn't make a habit of coming to work dressed as a raven.

But on a recent weekday, the Suffolk County Historical Society director was already getting into the spirit of Long Island's first Edgar Allan Poe Festival, slated to overtake Riverhead's downtown on Halloween weekend.

"It's a way to bring a little bit of literature and education and culture to the community in a fun way," said Curran, who donned tiny wings and a black mask at the opening of a Poe-themed museum display on Riverhead's West Main Street.

From Oct. 31 through Nov. 2, the Poe festival will transform Riverhead into a Halloween party of dancing zombies, marching skeletons, oversize puppets and storytellers, its organizers said.

Dancers have even been practicing their Michael Jackson moves for a "Thriller"-themed flash mob on Main Street.

In July, Sal St. George — the Medford-based creative consultant who launched Port Jefferson's annual Charles Dickens Festival in 1996 — approached Riverhead's town board with the idea for the festival and has since been scrambling to make it a reality by Halloween.

"Immediately they said, 'OK, let's do it,' " St. George said. "I said, 'OK, I'll have it ready for 2015.' And they said, 'No, no, let's do it this year.' "

Poe, who died in Baltimore in 1849, has no historical connection to Riverhead. But town officials and downtown merchants hope the festival will add momentum to an economic revival that officials said has been underway for several years.

Riverhead's downtown, once a regional commercial hub, decayed as big-box stores and malls sprouted up nearby, businesspeople said. Chris Kempner, Riverhead Town's community development director, estimated that 80 percent of downtown storefronts were vacant in 2008.

Main Street has since benefited from projects like the construction of the Hyatt Place hotel, which opened in 2011, and the refurbishment of the once-dilapidated Suffolk Theater, which reopened in 2013.

Jill Lewis, Riverhead Town's deputy supervisor, estimated that $50 million in public and private investment has poured into downtown over the past three years, including money for new sidewalks and the construction or renovation of three mixed-use buildings with ground-floor storefronts and apartments above.


Improving business there

The Poe festival is funded by Riverhead's Business Improvement District, a branch of the town government that formed in 1991 to fund efforts to draw shoppers to Main Street. The group has paid $15,000 toward the festival.

"When I opened up on Main Street, it was like opening up on the DMZ [demilitarized zone]; that's how desolate Main Street was," said Ray Pickersgill, president of the improvement district's board of directors and owner of the Robert James Salon & Spa on East Main Street, which opened 10 years ago. "I took a chance, and I'm glad I did."

Setbacks this year have included the closing of two Main Street eateries — the Riverhead Project and Cody's BBQ & Grill. But some officials said the Poe festival could be a well-timed boost.

"We have a huge influx of visitors this time of year, because of the pumpkins and the farms, a lot of people like to come out for the harvest," Kempner said. "It ties into that visitorship and then it brings them downtown, for a themed festival for the whole weekend."

St. George said he found an audience receptive to his vision — more Halloween-themed than strictly Poe-centric — in the East End town, where merchants and politicians have been trying for years to draw visitors to Main Street.

"Riverhead just stood out in my mind," St. George said. "I just saw they were ambitious. They're willing to open up their doors to new ideas."

Virtually every restaurant and shop has a role to play in the Poe-themed festivities, St. George said, adding that the festival, in part, is meant to keep Poe's memory from fading in popular culture. The other goal is just celebrating all the creepiness and joy of Halloween in the most grandiose way.

"Our job is to surprise everyone," St. George said.

 

MAN VS. MYTH

Edgar Allan Poe was born in 1809 in Boston. He had an older brother and a younger sister, and, by the time Poe was 3 years old, the death of his parents left him orphaned. He was adopted by John and Frances Allan, a wealthy couple who lived in Richmond, Virginia.

Poe aspired to be a writer, like his hero, British poet Lord Byron. He would achieve that goal in a life that included being expelled from the U.S. Military Academy at West Point, a broken engagement to his first love, the death of his beloved wife and estrangement from his adopted father. According to the Poe Museum in Richmond, Poe "is seen as a morbid, mysterious figure lurking in the shadows of moonlit cemeteries or crumbling castles. This is the Poe of legend. But much of what we know about Poe is wrong, the product of a biography written by one of his enemies in an attempt to defame the author's name."

Born: Jan. 19, 1809

Died: Oct. 7, 1849

Works: "The Tell-Tale Heart," "The Raven," "The Fall of the House of Usher" and "Tamerlane."

Source: Poe Museum

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