All eyes are on Riverhead these days, as the town at the meeting place of the Twin Forks is in the spotlight of the national news media, being billed as the new ‘place to be’ on the East End.
But from listening to the public comments at a recent forum on how best to spend $10 million in grant funding to boost the appeal of Riverhead’s historic downtown, this area still has a long way to go to shed decades of local public perception that it isn’t safe.
The perception of safety is a relative term that has a lot to do with where you were raised — if you were raised on a farm way out in the country, it can certainly seem that a place the size of Riverhead is a big city. If you were raised in the Big City 100 miles west of here, Riverhead seems like what it is — a place that once bustled due to its role as the county seat of Suffolk, filled with beautiful old brick buildings and a waterfront ripe for redevelopment.
Now, with the old Swezey’s building and one that housed a really nice bike shop (which we do quite miss) cleared for a new Town Square connecting Main Street to the river, the pace of change here has accelerated, while the perception further east may have stagnated.
One Main Street business owner insisted at the forum that people should bring their families and their kids to downtown Riverhead, and that it is safe to do so.
As parents whose kids’ formative teenage memories are of spending time in the Riverhead Library, then walking downtown for music lessons and to play card games at the game store that used to stand where Craft’D is now, we couldn’t agree more.
Our parents’ lasting youthful memories are of the time they spent downtown as teenagers, and so are our children’s. Our own childhood memories of downtown Riverhead, sandwiched now in midlife, are of the years of closing stores and sadness. But those memories are of days that have passed, and we’re thrilled to know that kids today are forming great memories here. This turnaround has been happening before our eyes for quite some time. Even with the vacant storefronts that remain downtown, there are people going to the theater, going out to dinner or for an ice cream cone or to ballet, martial arts and music classes. The critical mass has arrived.
The increased safety brought about by a bustling downtown is also a important aspect of encouraging people to visit. People perceive themselves to be safer when they are surrounded by other people. Festivals and concerts downtown are an important way to get people coming downtown for the first time, but the neighborhood will begin to truly thrive when people start coming downtown for everyday dinner, coffee or meeting up with friends. The kids are way out ahead of us on this.
One of the most interesting suggestions we heard at the forum on the downtown reinvestment initiative was that the County Seat be returned from Hauppauge to Riverhead. While Riverhead is still the official seat of Suffolk County government, most of the people of Suffolk live far west of here, and the East End’s two out of 18 county legislators are only able to sway the legislature into holding a couple meetings a year this far out east.
While it’s unlikely that Suffolk County will ever reconsider its move of government offices to Hauppauge, we think it’s pretty telling that one of the most recent additions to the downtown Riverhead brewery scene is Peconic County Brewing, which takes as its logo the flag proposed for an effort to get the five East End towns to secede from Suffolk County, forming a new county, Peconic, named after our relationship to the Peconic Bays & the Peconic River.
Even if Peconic County never becomes an official government entity, all East Enders live in Peconic County in our minds, and Riverhead is our county seat. Take a walk downtown and celebrate. It’s been a long time coming.