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Riverhead officials envision needed spark from federal program

Downtown and EPCAL are among hundreds of areas seeking designation as an Opportunity Zone, and officials view potential selection as a catalyst to help spur the area’s revitalization.

Officials have listed a high rate of commercial

Officials have listed a high rate of commercial vacancies, such as this empty storefront on East Main Street, as one of the obstacles to revitalizing downtown Riverhead. Credit: Randee Daddona

With the state recently recommending two key business areas in Riverhead to be included in a new federal program, Riverhead officials say they are hopeful — if they are selected — that the program can help attract more business and investment in town.

The downtown area in Riverhead and the Enterprise Park at Calverton were among the 514 census tracts New York State recommended to the U.S. Treasury Department for designation as Opportunity Zones, a new federal program designed to boost private investment in underserved urban and rural communities via tax benefits such as temporary tax deferrals on capital gains, or investment profits.

To get those benefits, investors must invest capital gains in an Opportunity Zone Fund within six months, or 180 days, from when they receive such gains.

Empire State Development, the umbrella organization for The New York State Urban Development Corporation and the New York Job Development Authority — both considered the state’s two main economic development financing entities — announced the recommendations April 20.

“It plays in perfectly with our revitalization efforts that we are rolling out,” said town Councilwoman Catherine Kent, who will be the Town Board’s liaison for the newly-created Downtown Revitalization Advisory Committee. “It could give us funds into those needed areas.”

Riverhead Supervisor Laura Jens-Smith did not immediately return requests for comment.

In Riverhead’s application for the program, Dawn Thomas, Riverhead’s community development administrator, said April 24 that officials emphasized the “shovel-readiness” of both the downtown and EPCAL tracts, which potential investors and new businesses could quickly begin working with.

Also pitched were the town’s previous downtown revitalization efforts, including:

  • Revitalization of its riverfront park;
  • New mixed-use commercial and residential developments;
  • The reopening of the Suffolk Theater and the construction of the Long Island Aquarium and Exhibition Center on Main Street.

Among the obstacles to revitalizing downtown which officials have identified were a high rate of commercial vacancies (38 percent) and abandoned properties, parking issues and a lack of wayfinding signage at gateway areas and downtown.

In addition to helping tackle some of those issues, the federal program, Thomas said, would give Riverhead “an edge” attracting new businesses and private investors’ resources downtown, which could help the town build new buildings, take a stronger look at creating more market-rate housing options and reoccupy and reconfigure vacant buildings.

“We’re at a tipping point downtown. We have new investments, new businesses and businesses trying to make a go of it, but there are other things that we think can be helpful to us,” Thomas said.

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