Activities at the Long Island Science Center. A state grant...

Activities at the Long Island Science Center. A state grant will help fund the center's expansion at 111 E. Main St. in Riverhead. Credit: Jim Lennon

A $1.1 million state grant will help fund the new Long Island Science Center in Riverhead, a facility that will complement what one town official called a "heart transplant" for the struggling downtown.

The nonprofit Riverhead-based learning museum was one the recipients of the state Regional Economic Development Council grants announced last month. The $1,120,000 was part of a $196 million round of funding for 488 projects statewide supporting community growth and business development.

The science center in May announced its expansion at 111 E. Main St., a formerly vacant building once occupied by the long-closed Swezey’s department store. When completed, the 24,000-square-foot building will feature a new third floor with a rooftop planetarium, agritech and sustainable energy exhibits, a lower-level makerspace and more.

"We've been working really hard on this grand plan of what we can bring to not just Riverhead and the East End, but really as a regional resource," said Cailin Kaller, executive director of the science center. "We’re so incredibly thrilled that we're able to create what we had envisioned for this area."

The structure also will open into Riverhead’s soon-to-be developed Town Square, a pedestrian plaza seen as a key element of revitalization efforts.

The science center project is expected to cost roughly $10 million with the nonprofit actively fundraising for the bulk of the money, Caller said. The organization has hired a grant writer and also is pursuing other local, state and federal funding sources.

The Swezey’s building was sandwiched between two blighted buildings, but when Riverhead Town announced plans to purchase and demolish those structures, it inspired the science center to add a third floor for the planetarium. Demolition began in October.

The science center has operated out of temporary spaces for the past few years, most recently opening a pop-up museum at Tanger Outlets in Riverhead in early December.

Museum officials hope to have the makerspace, which supplies tools for wood, digital and other projects, functional in the new space sometime next year, Kaller said. The rest of the museum would follow.

Local department stores like Swezey’s, which closed in 2003, were once the downtown draw before they were replaced by big box retailers on Riverhead's Route 58. Dawn Thomas, the town's community development director, said officials hope to reimagine Main Street as a destination with family-friendly experiences. They want the town square and the science center to entice visitors, which include the Long Island Aquarium’s 500,000 annual customers, to stay and return.

"This is more contemporary, more appropriate for today's types of visitors," Thomas said. "We're effectively giving it, like we say, a heart transplant."

Depending on funding, the town square project could be finished within the next three years, Thomas said. The vision calls for a walking circuit near the Peconic River, dining options and small retail shops emphasizing local merchants and artisans, she said.

"We're excited to see them [the science center] pursuing their expansion plans parallel to ours, and we think they'll be very synergistic," Thomas said.

Long Island Science Center expansion plans

A $1,120,000 state Regional Economic Development Council grant will help fund the science center's roughly $10 million expansion

Specifically the grant will go toward a rooftop planetarium, an "agritech" and wind/solar exhibit, a makerspace and facade enhancements

Other East End grants include $279,500 to Sag Harbor Village for the John Steinbeck Waterfront Park and $250,000 to the Peconic Land Trust for shoreline strengthening efforts at Widow's Hole Preserve in Greenport

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