If you’ve spent any time in downtown Riverhead, you’ve probably taken a look south, across the river, to the dense woods on the far shore, or driven across the river on Peconic Avenue around the Riverside traffic circle, into a sad area of boarded-up stores.
Riverside, the hamlet of Southampton just across the river from Riverhead, is a little ways behind downtown Riverhead in terms of economic development, but engaged community members aligned with Riverside Rediscovered and master developer Renaissance Downtowns, are working to change that.
Crucial to the future of both Riverhead and Riverside is the creation of the Peconic River Community Development Alliance, a consortium of community advocates from both Riverhead and Riverside that is working to develop shared goals on both sides of the river.
The Alliance gained a great ally this spring when lifelong Riverside resident Tijuana Fulford walked into the Riverside Rediscovered office, where PRCDA meets, and asked what she could do to help. She was tasked with becoming the Community Outreach Specialist for the Alliance.
The creator of The Butterfly Project, a program at the Riverhead Community Center that helps empower girls, Ms. Fulford has deep connections on both sides of the river.
“To me it’s a really good opportunity,” she said as she prepared for a meeting at Riverside Rediscovered’s office in late June.
“Coming from Riverside, people are always telling me what’s not there. I go out and talk to people from my own neighborhood and I’m saying ‘this is what we’re trying to do, and it’s an opportunity for you to have input and for your voice to be heard.’ When I go knocking they give me all their ideas, which make a lot of sense and are very doable.”
“We’re grateful to have Tijuana join us,” said PRCDA President Francis Zappone, who also serves as Southampton Town’s deputy supervisor. “One thing missing in our mission was energizing the young people. We’d been focusing our attention on adults, mostly people who would spend money in the community, but parents will come if kids do.”
One of the Alliance’s early missions was to bring an internationally acclaimed art installation called “Waterfire” to the Peconic River, but the group realized early on that it was too big a project to start with.
Ms. Fulford’s task right now is to find out what types of events — centered around arts, food, fishing or poetry — would be most likely to bring people already living near the river down to celebrate.
“Everyone just honestly wants to be included, from each side of the river,” she said. “Everyone wants to feel like it’s not just one type of people running an event or it is catered more to one group than another. Things like a food festival, music, fishing, arts and crafts, a farmers market, all those events bring a multitude of children together. I’ve never met someone who’s not excited about the fact that I’m at their door or in their office asking them what they’d like to see.”
“We’re losing millennials on the island,” said Riverside Rediscovered Community Liaison Siris Barrios. “Tijuana is a millennial, and having a millennial lead this work, at first I honestly didn’t acknowledge the value of that. It’s important.”
One of the issues Ms. Fulford been hearing quite a bit in her travels is that people who’ve been in jail are having trouble finding work with a criminal record.
She’s begun to reach out to business owners to see if they’d be interested in participating in a re-entry job fair, which she’s planning to be held at Southampton Town’s David W. Crohan Community Center in Flanders on Aug. 5 from 10 a.m. to 2 p.m.
“There aren’t many job fairs here, and with the job fairs in Riverhead, you’ve gotta have a squeaky clean background,” she said. “If you want people to spend money in the community, they need to have money to spend. For people who made bad choices in the past, we have to give them options so they don’t have to chose that lifestyle.”
Ms. Fulford has also been working on mapping out areas that attract people, and areas people avoid within a one-mile radius of the Riverside traffic circle. She then broke the maps out by the age of the respondents, and found it very interesting that younger people, many of whom ride bicycles, were more likely to want to spend time in Riverside.
She pointed to last month’s Juneteenth festival at Ludlum Park in Riverside, which saw banner attendance this year, as a sign that people are beginning to want to spend more time in the community. Southampton Town is embarking on a redevelopment of that park, with a satellite branch of the Children’s Museum of the East End.
“It was nice to see the park really fill up. That was amazing,” she said.
Mr. Zappone said Southampton Town’s plan to turn 14 acres of preserved riverfront land into a park with walking trails will also help spur change.
“It’s a beautiful inaccessible property, right next to the river,” he said. “If there are more places where people can feel safe and comfortable and enjoy themselves, that synergy will develop. If people come, we can build it better, and if we build it better more people will come.”
“Quite frankly, foot traffic is what we need,” he added. “If we have events that bring 150 to 200 people, people will say ‘I can see the value here for this business idea I’m putting on the table.”
“With cultural events in the immediate area, I think it’s about expanding old biases people have,” said Ms. Fulford. “The new generation, we’re not looking through the same glasses. We have big ideas. You can have that grand idea in your own community.”
PRCDA’s community survey is online here.