Two years after Democratic candidates for Riverhead Town Board took press on a walking tour of the troubles facing downtown Riverhead, this year’s candidates said little had changed as they took the press on a new walking tour Tuesday morning.
Town Supervisor candidate Laura Jens-Smith and her running mates, town board candidates Michele Lynch and Catherine Kent, met up at the shuttered town tourist information kiosk at the entrance to the riverfront parking lot behind Main Street for a tour of downtown’s shuttered stores, potholes, empty riverfront dockage and open dumpsters baking in the heat.
Ms. Jens-Smith pointed out that there are still 14 vacant storefronts downtown, just as there were two years ago.
The three candidates, the first-ever all female slate for Riverhead board, will face off against a Republican slate that includes incumbent Supervisor Sean Walter, Councilwoman Jodi Giglio and sod farmer Frank Beyrodt in this November’s election.
“We do have options,” said Ms. Jens-Smith. “Successful communities grow by choice, and a successful downtown takes leadership.”
She added that Riverhead is not making full use of its downtown assets, including Grangebel Park, which underwent a complete makeover several years ago, but is still not often used for public events, a kayak ramp on the Peconic River, and electric hookups available for boats to dock along the river, which can only be accessed after getting a permit at the town’s recreation department.
Ms. Lynch said she believes that dockage should be available to the public free-of-charge, as is the case alongside many canals in upstate New York.
“What’s right here, right now is not working,” said Ms. Jens-Smith. “Where else can you have lunch, go for a kayak ride and have a craft beer? Riverhead has a marketing and a branding problem.”
She also criticized the current town board for shelving a $567,000 New York State Brownfields Opportunity Area study, completed in 2015, that provided a blueprint for future downtown development.
The candidates all shared a concern for flooding downtown, and said Riverhead needed a serious plan for dealing with climate change.
“We will work with the community on flooding issues,” said Ms. Lynch. “We’re all committed to working with environmental and community groups. You can’t just ignore climate change.”
She pointed out that the City of Long Beach, which has an expansive oceanfront boardwalk, successfully rebuilt stronger after Superstorm Sandy.
The candidates said they are all concerned about downtown parking issues, and support a trolley system similar to one planned for the North Fork this fall.
The candidates reserved their sharpest criticism for the continued plague of shuttered buildings on Main Street, and said they would support taking property through eminent domain to spur change.
“Main Street should be the heart of the town,” said Ms. Kent, as she stood in front of the boarded-up storefront that used to be West Marine, before the boating store moved up to Route 58. “This is not what I want. I have grand memories of Main Street. We need to make downtown more aesthetically attractive.”
Ms. Jens-Smith cited the “broken windows” theory of policing in calling for more code enforcement downtown, forcing building owners to keep their properties well-maintained in the hopes of raising the spirits of people who visit and work downtown.
“Main Street is the heart of a town. How it looks is a big part of that,” said Ms. Kent. “We need guidelines for an attractive community that is going to attract people.”
The group stopped in at the Blue Duck Bakery to talk with co-owner Nancy Kouros, who opened the Riverhead outpost of the four Blue Duck bakeries five years ago.
Ms. Kouros also serves as the vice president of the Riverhead Business Improvement District.
The bakery is at the easternmost edge of the business district, within easy walking distance of the Long Island Aquarium and the Hyatt Place hotel.
But just to the west is a block of vacant stores, and families with baby strollers often turn around and head back east when they hit that stretch, never going as far as the shops on western Main Street.
“We’re waiting. It’s been fits and starts,” she said of downtown’s redevelopment. “We need more foot traffic downtown. Starting a business is not an easy thing. It takes a lot of capital, guts and work. We need more foot traffic downtown.”
Ms. Kouros said the town needs to address the lack of parking downtown, and make it more clear to visitors where parking lots are located. She added that she often sees traffic from the aquarium head directly up Ostrander Avenue toward Route 58, not staying downtown.
Ms. Kouros said many of the shuttered buildings are “past their prime and difficult to rent. They need major work and landlords don’t want to do it,” and added that some buildings have not been remediated from flood damage.
“We’re hanging on. We’re still here. We believe this store has a lot of potential, but this is a difficult nut to crack…. Two years down the road, we’ll be asking how do we sustain this.”
She said she has seen Riverhead’s potential first-hand when people come downtown for the Christmas bonfire, the Halloween festival and East End Arts’ street-painting festival.
“When Riverhead throws a party, everyone comes,” she said.