Transcript of “The State of the Town” speech delivered by Riverhead Town Supervisor Sean Walter before the annual tri-club meeting of Riverhead Lions, Riverhead Kiwanis and Riverhead Rotary at Eagle’s Landing Restaurant, Calverton Links, March 2, 2011:

Click here to watch the video.

A little more than a year ago, I took the oath of office at a festively decorated, historic Vail Leavitt Theater. The mood of the crowd was hopeful and it was a moment of renewal as Riverheaders showed their pride in the town we love. That day, I outlined the challenges ahead, I outlined my vision for an improved downtown, for a new direction at EPCAL, for preserving the rural heritage that is Riverhead and to bring fiscal sanity to Town Hall.

One year later, I am happy to say that even in the downdraft of a poor economy, with municipalities and states across these nation going bankrupt and strapped for cash, with households across our town hurting financially, that we as a town have made great progress in our march to create a new Riverhead.

One year ago, downtown was a sea of empty storefronts with ill conceived plans of revitalization. One year ago, the illusion of Apollo hung over downtown, choking out real renewal and good projects. For all too long Riverhead had been subjected to false promises that projects were “coming soon” yet all we saw was a litany of artist’s renderings and smoke and mirrors.

Just a short year later look where we are now in the backdrop of a poor economy.

Jim Bisset and Joe Petracelli have started construction on the Hyatt Hotel which is growing faster than a teenager in a growth spurt as each day the building gets closer to completion and it will be a treasure on our riverfront adjacent to the aquarium.

Dennis McDermott has invested in our future, Dennis is the creator of the Frisky Oyster in Greenport and is bringing his know how and can do spirit to our Main Street to create a glorious new eatery across the street from the soon to be open Hyatt.

Bob Castaldi has invested in our future, only one year ago the Suffolk Theater was mired in controversy and was at a stand still. Through hard work and with new attitude you can hear the sound of circular saws and hammers at the theater as it gets ready to open its doors once again, Morgan Hays has invested, just down the street the Red Collection has become a great place for browsers and buyers to purchase antiques and furniture in what was the Ben Franklin building.

Liz Strebel has reinvested, the Riverhead Grill which has been a Main Street staple for generations was rehabbed and refurbished and is once again the comfort place to eat on Main Street.

Sandi Wosnesner is still downtown, at this time last year we thought we would lose the Blue Door Gallery but with the help of town hall and Sandi’s spirit, Sandi has moved across town and her art and framing shop rolls merrily along on Roanoke Avenue.

Vic Prusinowski had a vision, we had a huge problem at Casa Rica one year ago, there were knife fights and stabbings and problems of every kind, well, one short year later all that has changed, through our diligence and the hard work of our police department, Casa Rica is gone, order has returned and now Cody’s Barbeque Restaurant will open soon on Main Street providing good food to the people of Riverhead.  

John Mazoppoulous has invested in our future, John owns Athens Restaurant downtown and if you haven’t had a chance, go see the beautiful way he has transformed his building into a Greek cafe with live music and good food.

Dee Muma has invested in our future twice, at Riverhead’s most prominent corner at One Peconic, Dark Horse Restaurant has brought downtown a world class eatery with a bistro like feel and has brought vitality to Main Street.

Ray Dickhoff, Marty Sendlewski, Jodi Giglio have invested, these are the principals in the “Summerwind” project which will replace the decayed former Club 91 and beautify the gateway to town with a soaring apartment complex that will bring foot traffic to downtown.

Dan and Greg have invested in our future, this spring Riverhead gets its first microbrewery, as Long Ireland beer, of which I can say I have enjoyed a breakfast stout or two, comes to Polish Town.

These people have invested in our future. Look around this room. There is a spirit that we are moving forward downtown and you can truly feel it. I’d like you to give a round of applause to these local heroes. These people who are not talk or hot air, these are the people who have taken up the challenge and have put their shoulder to the stone to move this town forward at a time when lending is nil and customers are scarce. These are the people who have invested in the future of downtown and this time you can believe downtown will change for the better because it isn’t about drawings and artist easels it is all real and these are neighbors and friends with a face. This time it will happen and it all feels good.

Folks, we ‘aren’t where we want to be …but …we ‘aren’t where we were.

Ray Pickersgill and members of the BID you do need to be recognized.  One of the things I promised one year ago is that we would make downtown a place of activity and the arts so that we could bring people to downtown and begin the Riverhead renewal …and …to anyone who was downtown last year you know the fun that was had downtown. Each week during summer we had hundreds of classic cars on our riverfront bringing families and baby carriages as old and young alike walked the waterfront and renewed some community spirit. Downtown was a place of concerts and the arts, music and fun. Our Fourth of July celebration was the largest one we have had in decades, we had rock on the River, children’s concerts and stilt walkers and one of our most successful Country Fairs. The Blues Festival rolled on, our Polish Fair had a great year, we organized a Country & Western concert, families enjoyed the Community Bonfire, we had parades and concerts and we even had thousands attend a cardboard boat race and I know that first hand because my boat sunk. Well, for a long time it seemed like downtown’s boat was sunk but today even the town’s biggest pessimists see a positive spirit, as we see families and neighbors coming together and enjoying downtown like they did in the old days. Renewing downtown is about people and events. It is about entrepreneurs ready to invest and live by the sweat of their brow and it is about kids running through crowds and Chevy’s and face paint, community gardens and music. It is coming together in Riverhead, you can feel downtown coming back and we look forward to an even grander 2011. Thank you for your role in all of this Riverhead BID.

One year ago this town faced an enormous deficit. Our landfill was in essence bankrupting this town and for all too long we existed on “one shot” budget gimmicks to keep Riverhead afloat. One year later we see light at the end of the tunnel as we begin to put this town on firm financial footing. Riverhead, like every other municipality across America, is being battered by a bad economy, but, unlike many other towns we have had the political courage to swallow the bitter pill that will bring us closer to balancing our books.

Last year, as you probably know, my budget laid people off from town hall for the first time in a long time. I do not take that responsibility lightly. We are diminished whenever we lose staff and I did everything I could to keep as many people as I could but there is also a sword hanging over the head of every Riverhead taxpayer, a sword that brings with it the danger of foreclosure on the family home and personal bankruptcy. Simply put, the public cries out for a reduction in the size of government. We can either face big problems now or face even bigger ones tomorrow. So my budget called for a layoff of thirteen positions. Seven of those layoffs were of people earning less than $10,000 per year but all receiving health care benefits of between $8,000 to 18,000 per year. Our health care and insurance costs have skyrocketed over the past year but due to budget cutbacks and what I will call “miserly spending” we have absorbed that increase and actually kept real spending at $800,000 less than in the previous year.

We are on the right financial road but we are not out of the woods yet. Everyone talks about “tough solutions” and shrinking the size of government. Let me tell you it is one thing to talk about it in a political campaign and it is another thing to actually do it daily in town hall. This administration has made the tough choices and we are committed to continue on a path to fiscal stability. The Unions aren’t happy with me…

Next year maybe I’ll be re-elected or maybe I’ll be run out of town on a rail but I want you to know whatever my personal fate is, as long as I am Supervisor, I am going fight to reduce the cost of government, hold the line on taxes and be honest with the public about my budgets. The public deserves no less.

Finally, one year ago I said that we needed to tap our town’s treasure at EPCAL to create tax base and good paying, clean jobs for Riverhead. One year later, after some fits and starts, I believe we are on the road to doing just that.

Let’s recap…a year ago there were two projects proposed for development at EPCAL. The first was the Rechler deal and the second was the Ski Mountain. Go ahead, you can laugh if you want to. Some months into my administration the Rechler deal sought to transform itself to a housing project adjacent to the runways at EPCAL. Well, it didn’t take a Grumman engineer to figure out that was not a good idea and that project soon disappeared. On to the Ski Mountain, we all witnessed the broken promises and missed deadlines that were Riverhead Resorts. I have to say that we gave Riverhead Resorts every benefit of the doubt and then some, but in the end, they could not close their transaction.

So we sit here today with a blank canvas at EPCAL. No deals in the pipeline. No projects on the drawing boards. That clean slate permits us to make a new beginning and we shall. We have had the EPCAL property for some 12 years now and we have done nothing with our bounty. EPCAL has been the place that all bad ideas come to die. EPCAL is where everyone with a dollar and a dream has come to propose silly schemes that never get off the ground. EPCAL is the place that politicians promise the moon and the stars to win re-election, with no intention of obtaining actual results.

The days of fiddling at EPCAL are over. The days of tossing around EPCAL like a football are over. Here is my action plan:

First, we finally do what the DEC has told us we must do and that is produce a comprehensive environmental study of the land at EPCAL. We can posture and pontificate, talk and bluster but the only way we can ever stick an actual shovel in the ground at EPCAL is to wrap up an environmental report and yes it will cost money to do so. I say it is time to recognize that reality and get that job done.

Second, our environmental study will tell us what areas at EPCAL are developable and which are not; from there we a can create a subdivision map and break the property down into smaller, more marketable parcels. We have a much better chance of attracting job creating businesses if we are marketing a high tech industrial  park with smaller lots then we will ever have in attempting to create Disneyworld North. With a clean bill of environmental health and a newly subdivided property then we can properly tap the potential of EPCAL.

A few weeks ago, with Councilman Jim Wooten at the wheel of our town’s senior citizen van, the town board and I visited Devens, Massachusetts. Like Riverhead, Devens received land due to a base closure but there is little similarity to the story of Devens and that of Riverhead. In Devens the state created an agency that acts as a clearinghouse and facilitator to drive the permitting process so that developers can receive their approvals quickly and start building in most cases within 75 days.

Here in Riverhead potential developers must clear the town, the county Department of Health, the State DEC and so on, and so on, and so on. My suggestion is that working with the state and county, and, at the same time not ceding any local control, that we create a permit clearinghouse that would streamline the timetable it takes to site a business and get development moving. With an environmental study in hand, and a finished subdivision and a permit clearinghouse we can then take EPCAL from a “field of dreams” to a real playing field where major league companies come to win.

A few weeks ago I met with Senator Charles Schumer and we discussed a vision for what can be here on Long Island. Senator Schumer is working hard to unite the resources of Brookhaven National Lab, Cold Spring Harbor Lab and Stony Brook University to create a high tech powerhouse that would rival “Silicon Valley”.

Gone are the days of Pulte homes and the Wilpon Housing development at EPCAL. It is no longer about Ski Mountains and carnivals. There is no reason we cannot out innovate and out create the soft sleek land of Northern California and what better place to do that then at the former Grumman facility? When the challenge was thrown down before the American people to put a man on the moon it was Calverton that they came to and it can be the place that can make it all happen again, if only we dream bigger.

I am going to hitch my wagon to projects like “Silicon Valley East.” Hold on we are about to shift into overdrive. For this is the time for Riverhead to think larger, to be real and to innovative when it comes to EPCAL.

I want to remind you that Riverhead is a great place to live, work and play. Some of you have been here for generations, some of you came during the blossom of the 1960’s, some of you are relatively new to town, which in Riverhead terms means you’ve been here less than 100 years. We are all here for the same reason– this is a better place to be. There is something special about holding your child’s hand at Iron Pier beach or clamming on the Peconic or picking fresh strawberries. Admit it, we have all muttered under our breath when we are stuck behind a tractor on Sound Avenue but none of us would ever trade our rural way of life for the bustle that is “up Island” and so we happily will keep our tractor traffic to keep our heritage.

The best way we can ensure that this place does not become just like anyplace is to save our open space and farmland. In the past year, working with the County, and with a depleted community preservation fund, we have saved more than three hundred acres of farmland and open space here in Riverhead…Land that will be forever green, land that will never see the bulldozer’s blade, land that will never increase our taxes by sending children to school and land that we will all enjoy as long as we walk on earth as will our children and theirs. For, nature enriches us and every sunset brings the promise of a new dawn.

Everywhere you look there is much to be done. Whether it is moving in a new direction at EPCAL or willing our downtown back to life or preserving our rural character or regaining our financial health, the time to act is now.  We can never wait because the timing is never …just right.

This is the “State of the Town” message…I am here today to tell you that the State of the Town of Riverhead is great. That we, like any other town have our difficulties, that we, like any other town, have our weaknesses but in the strength of our people, their character, their hard work and their love of community are the seeds that will bring us the bounty of many summers and autumns to come.

In this past year we have made a beginning and all of us should be excited about what’s next. There are many people in life who are there to say “no” we want to be the people that say “yes” and get things done.

Last year all of us will remember the rains that washed out the Horton Avenue area of our town; displaced neighbors and friends. Homes that were shattered and many of them may never be lived in again.         In that adversity something special happened …the community came together. Horton Avenue T Shirts popped up and were as common as blue jeans. Neighbors took in neighbors. Families came together and neighbors went into their pockets to help total strangers. In the political community egos and partisanship were put aside and everyone pulled on the oars in the same direction.

When I look out at the energy and devotion of the people in this room I see the ability to tackle any problem, to come together to make this town shine again and I see why this place is so special. I may be Town Supervisor but it is in all of our hands to move this town we love forward. I know we will rise to the challenge and I am happy to be here tonight with you –the people that make our town “Positively Riverhead”.

Thank you very much.

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