Bulldozers are digging a crevice for a sewer pipe through the heart of Wyandanch -- the first tangible sign of progress in redevelopment plans a decade in the making.
The sewer line down the middle of Straight Path is a major component of Wyandanch Rising, Babylon Town's $500 million public-private redevelopment and Long Island's most ambitious revitalization project in decades.
The plan: transform a deteriorating downtown with an incongruous mix of businesses into a 60-plus-acre redevelopment centered on the Long Island Rail Road station, with a transit plaza, mixed-use residential and retail buildings, and open green space.
The project has received more than $9.9 million in local, state and federal grant money -- including $2 million in state funds for sewer construction and more than $4 million in federal funds related to the transit plaza. In December, the town was given $6 million in state aid to jump-start job creation in Wyandanch.
The town also has made a significant investment. It has purchased 40 properties for a total of $17 million and used eminent domain to take 10 properties for a total of $8.2 million. To pay for these, Babylon issued $8.5 million in bonds and used $16.7 million in reserve funds. The town has agreed to bond for another $20 million to buy 17 more properties, town officials said.
The town also has authorized $2 million toward park development and the transit plaza, $5 million toward redevelopment of the community's Geiger Lake Park, and $15 million for the sewer line. But the latter bonds will go to market only if Babylon defaults on $14.7 million in federal low-interest financing received in 2010.
Kirk Kordeleski, chief executive of Bethpage Federal Credit Union, said large projects struggle to find funding in the current economy, but added, "I think Wyandanch has a shot.
"In this case, there is a very vetted and thorough plan, there is economic money that has been put in support of it and there's community support, which I believe gives it a leg up on most other options," said Kordeleski, who recently was tapped to become chairman of the Long Island Association business group.
The project still faces obstacles, including:
A tenuous economy that has left other projects languishing.
No commitments from private investors or businesses.
Community worries that a recent change in town supervisors will slow momentum.
Concerns that Wyandanch's enduring public safety and educational problems, if left unresolved, will derail the revitalization.
"Everything seems to be coming in one fell swoop working against the community: The economic crisis, the change in political leadership, the inability to solve some of the social problems in the community -- these are all interrelated," said Lee Koppelman, a master planner and director of Stony Brook University's Center for Regional Policy Studies.
First steps ahead
Wyandanch Rising is the brainchild of former Babylon Town Supervisor Steve Bellone. Throughout his decade as supervisor, he spoke passionately about the project and brought in nationally recognized urban planners and designers, aiming to make the long-suffering community a model of transit-oriented development.
Before he took over as Suffolk County Executive on Jan. 1, Bellone touted the plan as a way to expand the town's tax base and create jobs.
This year, the town is set to take its first major steps: The sewer line to the downtown, slated to be finished this spring, is a milestone, planning experts say. Sewers are an attractive cost-saver for businesses, and increase property values. Suffolk County has agreed to waive $14 million in connection fees.
The town hopes to finish a water spray park and playground in Geiger Lake Park by July. And construction on the first phase of development -- commercial and residential space -- is to start in the fall.
In October, the town signed an agreement with Garden City's Albanese Organization Inc. to be master developer for phase one. The company will secure capital and oversee construction.
The first phase will have 50,000 square feet of commercial space, 150 rental and 90 condo units in four buildings just north of the train station, where the town recently acquired the LIRR parking lots and a shopping center. Albanese must find lessees by the end of 2012.
Koppelman said the town is smart to begin with housing. "You'll have more of a buying population, more disposable income, and that will attract businesses. Developers will come in if they see a market," he said.
Bellone said the first phase, to be completed in 2014, is estimated to cost $100 million -- $80 million from the private sector. The other $20 million is expected to come over time from tax revenue from the development, according to town spokesman Tim Ruggeri.
The first phase is expected to produce $825,000 in annual tax revenue, compared with the current $62,000, and create 1,100 construction jobs and 150 permanent jobs, town officials said.
The town's planning has impressed some observers.
"It's rare that you find a project that has the support of both the state and the municipality," said Desmond Ryan, executive director of the Association for a Better Long Island developers group, adding that the plan also has strong support within Wyandanch and all layers of government.
As for worries that Bellone's move to the county will weaken the town's resolve, LIA president Kevin Law said the project will "only get more important to the region now." Bellone's successor, Richard Schaffer, has pledged support.
Hurdles to private funding
Obtaining private financing remains a question mark. Bellone said the project's first phase is crucial.
"We're trying to get a private sector developer to invest his own money in the most economically distressed community on Long Island in the aftermath of the worst economic downturn the country has seen since the Great Depression," he said.
Achieving that, he said, will increase the value of nearby properties and make it easier to attract the additional private financing necessary to push Wyandanch Rising forward.
The issue, said Albanese executive vice president George Aridas, will be "getting third-party lenders to understand the potential and take a lender risk on a project of this type."
William "Matt" Groh, 45, a Republican candidate for town board last year, noted the absence of any commitments and said, "I really question the merits of doing this at this time."
Public safety and education remain significant obstacles. From 2010 to 2011, violent crimes in Wyandanch rose from 102 to 112 incidents and property crimes increased from 455 to 483 incidents while countywide numbers were decreasing, according to police statistics. The school district has the Island's second-worst graduation rate.
Some real estate agents said those factors could affect initial sales.
"If the school district issues are not corrected, it will definitely have an impact on the housing situation," said Rickey Hill, owner of Rickey Realty in Wyandanch.
One measure of dissatisfaction: A group of Wyandanch residents and educators is working to open a charter school in 2013.
Wyandanch school board president Shirley Baker dismisses criticism. "We've had lawyers come out of here, doctors, engineers. It could be better but it's not the worst," she said.
Bellone has said he will direct more police to downtown areas, including Wyandanch, to battle gang activity. But, he acknowledged, "The community can't reach its full potential if we don't have a solution to the education problem."
Schaffer is generally optimistic but sees another hurdle: cynicism.
"If we run into problems, delays, issues, the public needs to know that we're dead serious about this, this is something that's going to happen," he said.
After years of promises and letdowns, longtime community members say the sight of bulldozers has them feeling optimistic.
"Sometimes I can't even imagine it, because it seems so far-fetched," said Debbie Joseph, executive director of the Wyandanch Homes and Property Development Corporation. "Change here is long overdue. . . . But I see it, it's coming."