Supervisor Yvette Aguiar and councilmen Frank Beyrodt, left, Bob Kern, Ken Rothwell and Tim Hubbard after the $10 million grant announcement in the supervisor's office this morning. Courtesy photo: Town of Riverhead/Joseph Maiorana

Until Riverhead Supervisor Yvette Aguiar joined the governor’s Zoom meeting this morning, town officials didn’t know if Riverhead would receive the $20 million Downtown Revitalization Grant it applied for — or whether the $20 million pot of funds heading for the Long Island Region would be split between two municipalities.

Soon after Aguiar logged on, Amityville Mayor Denns Siry joined the meeting, and that’s when the supervisor and community development staff waiting at her side knew Riverhead’s grant would be $10 million.

Officials understood winning a $20 million award was a real long-shot, especially after watching every region outside New York City see two $10 million dollar awards. Chinatown was the only recipient in the statewide competition to win a $20 million grant. The lower Manhattan neighborhood was the first DRI grant announced by the state early last month. Long Island was the final region to be announced — and almost a month had passed since the last announcement.

It was an excruciating wait for town officials, with so much of Riverhead’s hopes and dreams for downtown revitalization progress riding on the money.

Aguiar said today she’d had a call from the governor’s office yesterday advising her of the virtual press conference that would be held this morning to announce the Long Island region award. Riverhead officials had been very hopeful, but that call made it real.

Supervisor Yvette Aguiar gets ready for virtual press conference this morning in her office, with Chip Kreymborg and Dawn Thomas. Photo: Denise Civiletti

“I just took a very slow walk to Dawn Thomas’ office,” Aguiar recalled. “And I sat down and Dawn thought something was wrong and I said, no, it’s the opposite,” she said. “Obviously, we’ve been on cloud nine since 10:30 yesterday,” Aguiar said.

This morning, Thomas and community development staff members Joseph Maiorana and Frank Messina stood by in the supervisor’s office for the call, while the rest of the town board and an assortment of town employees gathered in the darkened town hall meeting room, eyes fixed on the projector screen, anxiously waiting for Lt. Gov. Brian Benjamin to make the announcement.

When Benjamin announced Riverhead’s $10 million award, holding up a giant check that read “Pay to the order of: Town of Riverhead…the sum of $10,000,000,” the audience broke out in applause.

It was a long time coming, an elated Aguiar said after the press conference, “but there was no doubt in my mind that, once they saw actionable progress… when it’s no longer just plans, we’re going to do this — I was confident we’d win it this time.” Riverhead was a finalist in three of the four prior DRI funding rounds. “When you take down buildings, that’s actionable progress.”

In May, the town purchased three buildings on the south side of East Main Street, with two of them slated for demolition, a process that began in October. The site is now cleared and mostly graded. Soon it will be seeded and a protective plywood barrier will be taken down, according to officials.

The work has opened up a vista from Main Street to the riverfront, a view a lot of people traveling through the town’s commercial district didn’t even know existed, she said.

The town plans to retain that vista and create green space and gathering spaces between the two buildings that line the future town square. The building on the west is owned by the Long Island Science Center, which is planning to renovate it as its new home.It will open up onto the town square. The building on the east is the third building the town bought last year, which currently has retail shops on the ground floor and offices above. The town is planning to work with a private developer to renovate the building and potentially add small shops along the square. The green space will extend to the riverfront and may possibly include an amphitheater and other amenities.

“I think Riverhead deserved this for so long. And I think the town is finally getting recognized for what it has and its value,” Thomas said. “I think the residents have waited a long time for this kind of attention and I think we’re getting it. So that’s the most exciting part of it,” she said.

“It’s a real vote of confidence in our direction, our projects and our ability to execute on those projects and really spend the money well,” Thomas said. “And it’s not just our team but the teams before us: Chris Kempner and Andrea Lohneiss, Rick Hanley, Jeff Murphree — all those people who work on planning over the years, really just built us up to the moment where we were able to sort of rely on it all,” she said, referring to her predecessors in the community development office and the town’s former planning director.

Main Street is now open to the riverfront in the space where two blighted buildings once stood. Photo: Denise Civiletti

In a press release announcing the grant, Gov. Kathy Hochul highlighted the town’s “momentum of completed and ongoing projects, including a new aquarium, the reopening of the Suffolk Theater, and multiple housing projects.”

The town’s plans to “increase public gathering space capitalizing on the Peconic River waterfront, create new pedestrian/bike access, and improve pedestrian/bike safety” will “create a critical mass of economic activity in the downtown for residents and tourists alike,” Hochul said.

Bryan DeLuca, executive director of the company that owns and operates the L.I. Aquarium, the Hyatt Place East End and other downtown businesses, described his reaction to news of the award as “jubilation.”

“I was just thrilled,” DeLuca said. “We’ve been the bridesmaid like three years in a row,” he said. “Since the town already took action in demo-ing blighted buildings, it shows commitment to revitalization. We’ve had things that were contributory [for revitalization] but they just were not enough. This is going to be the shot in the arm we need. It’s going to be a catalyst for other grants and investment.”

Riverhead will now begin the process of developing a Strategic Investment Plan to revitalize their downtowns with up to $300,000 in planning funds from the $10 million DRI grant, the governor’s office said in the press release. Local planning committees made up of town representatives, community leaders, and other stakeholders will lead the effort, supported by a team of private sector experts and state planners, according to the release.

The strategic investment plan will examine local assets and opportunities and identify economic development, transportation, housing, and community projects that align with the community’s vision for downtown revitalization and that are poised for implementation. The plan will guide the investment of DRI grant funds in revitalization projects that will advance the community’s vision for its downtown and that can leverage and expand upon the state’s $10 million investment. The plan must be completed in 2022.

DeLuca said the planning process itself will be an important step forward.

Steven Shauger, general manager of the Hyatt Place and president of the Riverhead Business Improvement Management Association, agreed. “The strategic plan will make sure it’s right for the community to ensure whatever happens here is a good fit, which is very important.”

“The grant award shows the state believes in what’s happening here. It shows a lot of people believe in Downtown Riverhead and want to make it happen,” Shauger said. “It really can be a phenomenal place.”

Restaurateur Marc LaMaina said Downtown Riverhead has a lot of momentum right now. “There are so many great things going on. So many great businesses pounding away everyday… they deserve this. The locals who are crying out for a downtown they can feel safe and proud of deserve this,” he said.

LaMaina, owner of the successful Lucharitos restaurants, is preparing to open LuchaCubano in the former Sunny’s Diner/Riverhead Grill location on East Main Street.

“I’m excited. The energy is now.,” LaMaina said. “A friend messaged me and said Downtown Riverhead is going to to be happening in a couple of years. I had to correct him. Downtown Riverhead is happening now. Kudos to the Town of Riverhead leadership. This is historic,” LaMaina said.

There’s a lot of work to be done, Thomas said, expressing confidence that the town and the community are up to the task.

“It’s not just us. It’s everybody lining up together to support the project and the community engagement process we’ve had. We’ve really embraced and expanded on everything that — so all of those things together, show we’re ready for this infusion of funding, and we’re ready to go to the next level now,” Thomas said.

Thomas credited the town’s leadership team, which she said was unified in its support for the revitalization efforts. She thanked the supervisor and members of the town board, as well as other department heads and the executive director of the Riverhead Industrial Development Agency, Tracy Stark-James.

What’s the first thing on her agenda now that the suspense is over?

“Tonight? I’m going to have a beer,” Thomas said smiling.

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Denise is a veteran local reporter, editor, attorney and former Riverhead Town councilwoman. Her work has been recognized with numerous awards, including investigative reporting and writer of the year awards from the N.Y. Press Association. She is a founder, owner and co-publisher of this website.Email Denise.