Grumman Memorial Park, Calverton. File photo: Denise Civiletti

On Sept. 10, Riverhead Town will mark the 20th anniversary of the day it took ownership of the 2,640 acres in Calverton known as EPCAL — the Enterprise Park at Calverton.

What is this place? Why does Riverhead own it? What has it done with the site? What does its future hold?

As the town wraps up its examination of a company seeking to buy nearly all of the town’s remaining land holdings at the enterprise park — 1,643.8 acres of land undeveloped but for two runways, 7,000 feet and 10,000 feet long and their associated taxiways — emotions run high among residents debating the pros and cons of the current deal and the future of this site.

In this series, RiverheadLOCAL will delve into the history of the place known as EPCAL on the eve of what is widely regarded as the most important decision ever made by a town board in the 226-year history of the Town of Riverhead.

And by that destiny to perform an act
Whereof what’s past is prologue; what to come,
In yours and my discharge.
William Shakespeare, “The Tempest”

The history of the site and the origins of the emotions boiling over today stretch well beyond the 20 years of town ownership.

The U.S. Navy previously owned the site we call EPCAL — the Naval Weapons Industrial Reserve Plant, protected by barbed wire-topped fencing and a security path circling its perimeter. The roughly 3,000-acre site was part of about 7,000 Navy-owned acres, parcels assembled in the late 1940s and early 1950s for a contractor-operated manufacturing, assembling and testing facility.

The manufacturing site was bordered on the south by the Peconic River and on the north by State Route 25. Vacant lands surrounding the site were maintained as crash buffers — until the government in 1977 conveyed 902 acres to the Veterans Administration for use as a national cemetery.

The Navy constructed manufacturing plants and ancillary buildings, roadways, runways, a control tower and other infrastructure including a sewage treatment plant and wells.

It leased the site to the Grumman Corporation, one of the nation’s major defense contractors founded in 1929 by Leroy Grumman. The Grumman Corporation was known for the World War II “Cats” fighter aircraft it built for the Navy: principally the F4F Wildcat and F6F Hellcat.

Grumman Corporation — which changed its name to Grumman Aerospace in 1969 — was headquartered first in Valley Stream and then in Bethpage. At its peak in 1986, it employed 23,000 Long Islanders, Dr. Lee Koppelman, executive director of the Long Island Regional Planning Board told the New York Times in 1994. It was Long Island’s largest employer.

Grumman, employed more than 3,000 people at its Calverton plant, where, beginning in 1956, it fabricated, assembled and tested military fighter aircraft and engines.

In the 1960s Grumman produced the A-6 Intruder and E-2 Hawkeye, followed in the 1970s with the Grumman EA-6B Prowler and storied F-14 Tomcat fighter jet.

Grumman designed and built the Apollo Lunar Module that landed men on the moon. It won the contract in November 1962 and between 1969 and 1972, six Grumman lunar modules carried 12 astronauts to and from the surface of the moon.

The end of the Cold War at the beginning of the 1990s heralded a new era of reduced defense spending in the United States. The new environment led to a wave of mergers as aerospace companies shrank in number. In 1994, Northrop bought Grumman Aerospace for $2.1 billion to form Northrop Grumman. That year, the company announced it would vacate the Calverton site in February 1996, relocating its manufacturing and testing facilities to Florida, Georgia and Louisiana, where wages and business operation costs were lower.

The announcement that Northrop Grumman was shutting down its operation in Calverton sent shock waves through the community, where a workforce of several hundred people would face layoffs and town and school district coffers would be depleted by the $1.5 million in annual payments in lieu of taxes made by the defense contractor.

Riverhead Town officials, recognizing the need to try to head off a looming economic emergency, in April 1994 created the 18-member Riverhead Comprehensive Economic Development Task Force charged with, among other things, identifying appropriate uses for the Calverton facility in the post-Grumman era. The task force was chaired by Riverhead Building Supply vice president Bobby Goodale, with members drawn from various sectors of the local economy.

Then-congressman George Hochbrueckner introduced an amendment to the defense appropriations act authorizing the Navy to transfer the manufacturing site — roughly 2,900 acres inside the fence — to a local development authority. Hochbrueckner envisioned a new authority dominated by Riverhead Town and perhaps Suffolk County members, according to a May 7, 1994 report in Newsday.

In June and July, the Riverhead Town Board passed resolutions supporting the concept and seeking transfer of the site to Riverhead Town or to its Community Development Agency, a development authority that had been established by the town in 1982.

The legislation was passed by Congress in September of 1994 and signed into law by President Bill Clinton.

Hochbrueckner’s goal was economic development and the replacement of the jobs and tax base soon to be lost by the town. But many questions about the future of the site after Northrop Grumman’s anticipated shutdown remained to be answered. Who would oversee the redevelopment effort? How should the site be redeveloped? Should it be developed as an airport, an industrial park — or something else?

As required by the legislation, the town board that month created the Calverton Air Facility Joint Planning and Redevelopment Commission — a successor to the town task force — and named Bobby Goodale commission chairman.

The commission’s first task would be to oversee the creation of a comprehensive reuse plan for the site, which in 1995 the town commissioned the NYC planning firm of Hamilton, Rabinovitz & Alschuler to develop.

For a variety of reasons — to be explored in the next installment of this series — title to the site would not be transferred to the Riverhead CDA until two full years after the passage of Hochbrueckner’s legislation authorizing it, but the HR&A reuse plan, completed in 1996, would set the course of the property’s future for nearly two decades to come. 

Next: Pine Barrens, politics and the plan that launched a thousand schemes

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