Two proposals including plans for transit-oriented development near the LIRR in Amityville Village and a Riverhead town square featuring an amphitheater and an ice rink won $10 million each in state funding on Thursday.
Lt. Gov. Brian Benjamin and Long Island officials announced the awards, intended to spur downtown redevelopment by putting state money and planning expertise behind local efforts, in a news conference conducted over Zoom.
For Thursday’s winners, the awards validated years of planning.
Riverhead Supervisor Yvette Aguiar said, "The governor and the Empire State Development Corporation saw our vision ... and through this grant, it will soon become a reality."
They also came at what Matt Cohen, CEO of the Long Island Association business group, said in a statement was a "pivotal point" for downtowns trying to retain and attract businesses "still reeling from the pandemic."
Amityville Mayor: 'The glory days are coming back'
In Amityville, officials have identified three parcels near the village’s Long Island Rail Road station for possible redevelopment, and seven more nearby that could also support mixed-use development or multi-family housingwhose residents would provide a customer base for downtown shops.
The plan also proposes traffic calming for Broadway, the local stretch of Route 110, the state road that is one of the region’s main north-south arteries. It also calls for public Wi-Fi downtown, new pocket parks, better integration of the LIRR station with the village and the addition of last-mile transit options like car and bike shares and shuttle service.
Amityville Mayor Dennis Siry said, "The glory days are coming back" for the village, whose businesses struggled after the opening of the Sunrise Mall in East Massapequa and demolition of the Brunswick Hospital Center, which began closing its operations in 2005. Workers at that facility, north of the village downtown, were once customers for downtown businesses, and the landowner was once the village’s largest taxpayer.
With hundreds of new residential units in the pipeline, village officials hope to attract new businesses, along with visitors to patronize them.
"Hopefully, more people will come looking, realizing what we have to offer," Siry said.
'We call it a heart transplant,' Riverhead official says
In Riverhead, community development director Dawn Thomas said officials will build a town square open to the Peconic Riverwalk. Replacing hulking, long-vacant buildings that once held Swezey’s department store and a bicycle store, the square will offer an amphitheater, public dining, market areas, a playground and an ice rink.
"We call it a heart transplant," Thomas said. These are things for the public to enjoy, but it will also connect the riverfront to Main Street, which has never happened in the past."
A blighted area around the local LIRR station will be rebuilt, she said, with master-planned apartments, retail and garage parking replacing a two-acre parking lot.
"People will come off the train, or take the bus, or come to park and have connections to downtown," remaking an area she conceded "right now is not particularly welcoming."
The residential component is essential to the project’s success, she said. Residents "have pride in their downtown, they utilize amenities. It’s no longer vacant, it’s not scary, it becomes attractive, interesting and inviting."
The plan also includes a state-of-the-art planetarium slated for a Long Island Science Center building on the town square, and upgrades to the Suffolk Theater and the Vail Leavitt Music Hall.
The town also plans measures to mitigate flooding and a marketing campaign to solidify its identity as the "gateway to all of eastern Long Island," according to its grant application.
The state initiative, now in its fifth year, has distributed $600 million to municipalities and attracts more interest than there are grants to give away. Siry and Thomas said their wins came after several unsuccessful applications in past years. "We were crestfallen every time we didn’t win" but never stopped planning, Thomas said.
Previous winners include Westbury, Hicksville, Baldwin and Central Islip. This year’s program gave $20 million to each region. The Long Island Regional Economic Development Council nominated downtowns after receiving applications.
Eric Alexander, director of Vision Long Island, said the program has yielded tangible successes, particularly in Westbury, though some have complained the state is slow "getting dollars on the street."
Most communities that win the grants are already primed for success.
"They had to do meaningful planning work already," he said. The money is "an accelerant. It’s not one grant that does it alone."
With James T. Madore and J.P. Salamanca