The future site of Peconic Hockey Foundation's rinks. Photo: Peter Blasl

Town officials are scrambling to find funds to build bathrooms at Veterans Memorial Park, which the town promised in its contract with Peconic Hockey Foundation, after officials learned that money they were counting on will not be coming in any time soon. 

The town was relying on money from the developer of a commercial solar facility in Calverton to cover the cost of the bathrooms, estimated at $700,000 to $750,000. The funding source was to be a “community benefits agreement” with the developer, like the agreements previously signed with two other commercial solar developers.

Riverhead has negotiated a tentative agreement with global energy company AES Corporation, developer of Riverhead Solar 2, a 36-megawatt solar energy production facility on Edwards Avenue approved by the state in June 2021. But the agreement — which town officials said would allocate $750,000 to park, recreation and other public space projects — has not yet been signed, and a company representative told RiverheadLOCAL it is not expected to be signed for some time.

“Based on our latest schedule projections for the project, construction will begin no earlier than late 2023 and that schedule could change,” Josh Baird, director of solar development for AES, said in the statement.

Community benefits are a one-time payment made by a developer as a condition to obtain certain town approvals. The town is not anticipating community benefits money from any other company in time to pay construction costs of the bathroom before Peconic Hockey anticipated opening date, leaving officials searching for another funding source.

For the past few months, Council Member Ken Rothwell, who has championed the Peconic Hockey project since he came into office, has said that the town expected to soon finalize the agreement with AES.

Rothwell and other town officials say bathrooms have long been needed at the park irrespective of the ice rink.

“We made it clear to them, yes, it’s our obligation to get the bathrooms. But we don’t want to delay their opening,” Rothwell said.

MORE COVERAGE: Plans for bathrooms at Veterans Park, in the works since 2006, move forward

Without the community benefits money for the project, the town is exploring several grant opportunities to cover the cost, including through the Water Quality Protection and Restoration Program and the State Department of Environmental Conservation Water Quality Improvement Project, Community Development Director Dawn Thomas said. The town has had conversations with officials about the grants, but has not yet applied for funding.

Rothwell said he does not regret voting for the ice rink project, even though the town did not have, at the time the contract was approved, the money to hold up their end of the deal.

“They have an understanding that we’re going to do our best,” Rothwell said. “And I think we’ll be successful in grants. If not, then we can adjust the budget for next year. But no regrets, not at all. This is an awesome project for the Town of Riverhead, it’s got to move forward.”

Rothwell said the town could explore the possibility of using recreation fees paid by developers on new housing units, if need be, but he has not discussed that with the Recreation Advisory Committee.

The Recreation Advisory Committee, established to plan and recommend park improvements to the Town Board, has not been very involved in the hockey rink project, committee co-chair George Gabrielsen said.  

Gabrielsen said that while the committee supports the hockey rink project, it shouldn’t come at the expense of other recreation projects and improvements to other parks throughout the town. The committee has a list of projects it wants to see happen, Gabrielsen said, including improvements to the parking lot at Police Officers Memorial Park (Bayberry Park), additional parking at Horton Avenue Park and a children’s playground at Veterans Memorial Park.

Available funds for park improvements need to “get divvied over many different aspects of the town,” Gabrielsen said. “We can’t just throw it all into one project.”

The cost of the bathroom facility would use most, if not all, of the Riverhead Solar 2 community benefits money that would be allocated to parks projects by the proposed agreement.

Until the town can fund a permanent facility, officials are considering placing portable toilets in the area of the rink so users will have a bathroom facility when the rink opens, Rothwell said. 

Rothwell said Peconic Hockey Foundation representatives were looking for a business to donate a more upscale temporary bathroom facility. But Troy Albert, president of the group, said that is not the case; he said the town is the one that has agreed to pay for a more upscale facility.

Rothwell said there was a miscommunication with Peconic Hockey and the town will speak with group to clear it up. The town has not looked into the cost of a more upscale temporary bathroom facility, he said.

The town in its contract with Peconic Hockey Foundation committed to providing a bathroom facility for the domed ice rink that the organization is going to erect and donate to the town. Peconic Hockey will operate the rink. The contract also obligates the town to bring utilities to the rink site, as well as pay $150,000 per year toward electricity costs of operating the facility.

MORE COVERAGE: Riverhead approves deal for domed ice rink facility at Veterans Memorial Park in Calverton

Construction for the foundation of the ice rink began on March 29. At that time, Albert said the construction would take roughly two to three months. Albert said in a recent call he did not have a timeline to report. “We’ll have a better idea in a couple of weeks.”

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Alek Lewis is a lifelong Riverhead resident and a 2021 graduate of Stony Brook University’s School of Communication and Journalism. Previously, he served as news editor of Stony Brook’s student newspaper, The Statesman, and was a member of the campus’s chapter of the Society of Professional Journalists. Email: alek@riverheadlocal.com