Downtown Kings Park seemed frozen, free of blight but limping while neighbors thrived, residents and businesspeople said.
Then, in a 24-hour span last week, Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo signed a law clearing the way for a $20 million sewer project in Main Street’s commercial strip, a move that will allow previously restricted apartments, restaurants and cafes to open there; and Suffolk County and Smithtown officials announced a $500,000 county grant to build a 23-vehicle parking lot on the strip’s parking-deprived west end. Work on both projects could start this fall.
“All of the elements necessary for economic success and economic growth are there,” said County Executive Steve Bellone at a news conference announcing the grant at Park Bake Shop last Thursday. They include proximity to two large state parks, a Long Island Rail Road station and the downtown itself, roughly half a mile long, lined with one- and two-story commercial buildings interrupted by small parking lots and pedestrian plazas.
“Already, business owners that own buildings have told me that when sewers go in, their intentions are to do renovations and move forward,” Smithtown Town Supervisor Edward Wehrheim said.
But the future was hard to see on a recent afternoon walking tour. Downtown was virtually deserted and marred by a roofless, burned out brick building that once held a podiatrist’s office. Some businesses, such as a dance studio and the handful of restaurants at the west end of town, were closed or slow until the early evening.
Of 50 leasable spaces, 15 were currently vacant, and five were for sale, said Larry Flynn, a real estate agent. Commercial rents fetch $22 to $24 per square foot in some Long Island downtowns; not here. "You'd be lucky to get $8 to $12 a square foot on older buildings with limited parking and a narrow thoroughfare," he said.
“It’s very lonely,” said Rosalba Olarte, owner of Rosalba’s Tailoring and a 40-year downtown veteran. “I have business because of my service,” a vanishing expertise in making alterations for clothing, curtains and pillows. Scattered parking and a lack of curb cuts made downtown inhospitable to walkers and shoppers, she said.
In LI Toy & Game, surrounded by vintage toys and comics, William Stewart said internet business was keeping him afloat. He doubted the new parking lot would help someone like him, located off the existing LIRR parking lot, and said he feared the disruption of sewering could be lethal for some already teetering businesses. He said he’d rather see the money put toward beautification of the downtown streetscape with planters and new facades.
Two of the hamlet’s biggest boosters — Linda Henninger and Tony Tanzi, presidents of the civic association and chamber of commerce, respectively — are taking the long view.
Tanzi, who owns property in the area and would benefit from increased demand for downtown space, described sewers and parking as part of the revitalization package.
“If you start to put in businesses where you see people — restaurants with outdoor dining, little shops where people are window shopping — it makes other people want to be there,” he said.
Henninger said she was thrilled by last week’s developments, but put them in context; they were, she said, “the end of the beginning.”
Kings Park business voices on the grant announcement:
"We waited a long time to find the right location ... Things are going really good" — Deborah Rossi, co-owner of Louis Anthony Jewelers, which opened downtown in December
"It'll bring people who are not from Kings Park into the area ... it gives this town a little stability" — Nick Salerno, head chef at Relish
"A parking lot would help every business" — Mario Cardona, manager of Main Street Pizza Cafe, where the store owner rents a nearby lot