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Editorial: Now or never for downtown Riverhead

Over the past decade, in the longstanding pursuit of a revitalized downtown Riverhead, key moments have signaled varying degrees of progress. Over multiple administrations, the town has celebrated as state and federal funds were awarded for an array projects for downtown, some of which have come to fruition and others that have fizzled.

One of the biggest came as recently as late 2019 when the town received notice it had won an $800,000 Empire State Development grant that helped launch the development of the Town Square project.

Nearly seven years ago, in this space, we posed the question of whether now could be the time for downtown Riverhead’s revitalization as results of a $571,000 Brownfields Opportunity Area grant were beginning to show. The future seemed as bright as ever.

Looking back now at so many of those moments, it all seems to pale in comparison to what the Town of Riverhead now has in front of it. A $10 million Downtown Revitalization Initiative Grant announced by the state last week feels like the kind of game changer that presents a now-or-never opportunity for downtown Riverhead to finally capitalize and grow to become the kind of area other downtowns envy. As big a chunk of change as $10 million may seem, money can quickly dry up as it’s spread around to multiple projects. So deciding how to divide up funds to provide the best opportunity for the downtown area to grow will be crucial.

There’s plenty of reason for optimism. 

A transportation-oriented development in the area by the railroad station could spearhead a more walkable and pedestrian-friendly area that provides a huge boost beyond the riverfront. That area has been long neglected and the massive, usually almost empty parking lot there is a waste of space. The nearby project proposed at 205 Osborn Ave. has its critics, but that development, in conjunction with the TOD, could truly reshape that area and only drive more people to the nearby Suffolk County Historical Society and Riverhead Free Library.

Any development of the downtown area along the riverfront comes with the usual caveat. Flooding remains an issue and Mother Nature has given no indication of letting up. We were reminded this week when a storm brought moderate flooding to the area and water poured out along the boardwalk, forcing the parking lot to be closed off.

Efforts to address flooding have either been deemed too expensive or simply not worth the time in the past, but we’re hopeful that now is the time to find a workable, cost-effective solution. The application submitted by the town calls for implementing recommendations of a Flood Plain Management Study prepared by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers. That study should be available soon and will hopefully provide a solution. 

In 2017, Riverhead Town partnered for the downtown revitalization grant with neighboring Southampton Town as it pursued its own revitalization of the Riverside area across the river. The goal at the time was to strengthen its bid. That didn’t come through, and it was likely a blessing for Riverhead now that it secured the entire $10 million itself.

But looking ahead, the revitalization of the Riverside area feels just as important to the redevelopment of Riverhead. There’s a massive opportunity on the other side of the river and the hope now would be Riverhead smartly applying its funding will show the state that awarding a similar grant to Southampton Town will ultimately complete the revitalization. In a perfect world, the state would have awarded the $20 million that was available this year to both Riverhead and Southampton for one big push for the region. Instead, the second half went to the Village of Amityville.

In touring downtown Riverhead in 2019, then-lieutenant governor Kathy Hochul encouraged the town’s leaders to keep applying for the grant. There was definite optimism around Town Hall these past few months as officials anxiously awaited word. And the moment to celebrate finally arrived last Thursday.

It wasn’t the kind of in-person celebration we would have seen before the pandemic, but even over Zoom, the excitement was palpable.

The future of Riverhead undoubtedly looks bright. But the mission is far from over. Securing the funds was the first step in a crucial process that we’ll look back on decades from now as a turning point for downtown Riverhead. There may not be another pot of gold for some time.

It’s now or never.