Thursday, October 25, 2007

Save EPCAL for industry

Indoor snow mountain mega-theme park or NASCAR race track? Which one?
How about neither?
The whole EPCAL site should be reserved for industrial development. The town should put in improvements, such as roads, and subdivide it so that it’s selling industrial lots and not 700-plus acre tracts. There’s no need to unload the land there all at once. They’re not making any more land, you know. Why have a fire sale? The land is money in the bank for the next generation.
When the town sells huge chunks of undeveloped land at EPCAL to private developers, it puts the fate of its economic development zone into the hands of private businesses that only have their own financial interests at heart. Look what happened with the sale of the so-called industrial core to a private developer. He flipped title to the buildings to eager purchasers before the ink on his deed from the town was dry, before he even had an approved subdivision. He did little to improve the site. And so it remains, dubbed “the Wild West,” a truly unappealing excuse for an industrial park.
The town should revisit the reuse plan developed for the site in 1997. It’s obsolete and unworkable and so is the zoning adopted to implement it. Call me a conspiracy theorist, but I think it was devised in a back room specifically to make sure nothing ever happened there. It’s been one of the most effective preservation plans ever adopted.
Eliminate the recreational zoning at EPCAL and develop the former Grumman site as the cohesive, high tech, light industrial center it should be. That’s what will fulfill the purpose behind the transfer of the property to the town: to reclaim the jobs and property taxes we lost when Grumman left. No theme park or hotel or race track or any of the other silly uses will do that.
The planned recreational district, if you look at the events of the past decade, is the source of most of the EPCAL fiascos that have made Riverhead the laughingstock of Long Island — and beyond. Over the years we’ve seen every cockamamie scheme for the site imaginable. The film studio plans. The failed Field Day rock concert, which resulted in Riverhead becoming a synonym for stupidity around the world. The air show “fundraiser” that had traffic backed up on Route 25 and William Floyd Parkway from EPCAL to Exit 68 on the LIE. The phony amusement park proposed by a group of NYC accountants who submitted a hokey business plan consisting of a three-ring binder filled with pictures of rides downloaded from the Internet and a phony letter of financial backing from a German investment company where one of the principals had formerly been employed? The Indian casino, courtesy of the Shinnecock tribe. And the water ski park on a man-made lake — where excavators, in their zeal to remove valuable sand, accidently struck ground water. Oops. The plan by Ken Wilpon to build a hotel/convention center and hundreds of homes there — which fizzled just after the last election. And along the way, proposals for sand mines disguised as golf courses, and even a zoo.
You could fill a book with the things that never happened at EPCAL. I’m sure I’m forgetting a few, including at least one or two car racing complexes.
So when word came of a Scotsman proposing to build a 350-foot-tall indoor ski mountain at EPCAL, I shook my head, laughed and thought, “Yeah, sure, what’s next?” A lot of people had the same reaction. We’ve learned to take this stuff with a grain of salt. For good reason.
Will Riverhead Resorts ever really happen? If history is any guide, the answer is no. On the other hand, indoor ski trails are in operation and under construction all around the globe. They’re not as far out as you might think. But then, this is Riverhead. And Riverhead is just ... different.
Already there’s some confusion about exactly what Riverhead Resorts is planning — for real. Supervisor Phil Cardinale says the ski mountain isn’t critical to Riverhead Resports’ plan; it will go forward with its complex of multiple themed resorts with or without the artificial mountain. But the developer told L.I. Business News last week that the mountain is critical to its plan — as an “anchor” attraction. So which is it? In an interview with News-Review editor John Stefans this week, the developer’s rep tried to backpeddle, claiming he wasn’t correctly quoted in the other newspaper. The quote was “taken out of context” he told us.
But — whatever. The notion of eight theme parks at EPCAL — with or without a manmade mountain — is, to my mind, one of the more preposterous things I’ve heard proposed for the site. And that’s no small feat. How are all the people going to get there? The site has no suitable access. You think traffic on surrounding roads is bad now? Just wait. On a recent Sunday afternoon, traffic on Edwards Avenue was bumper to bumper from Route 25 to Calverton Links — nearly to the LIE! And that was just the pumpkin picking crowd.

Wednesday, October 24, 2007

They put the silly in the season

It’s time for that biennial migraine suffered by editors of local newspapers everywhere. The home stretch of the local election campaign, every couple of years, brings with it a barrage of political ads making dubious claims and scurrilous attacks. Editors suffer the unhappy consequence of the silly season at its silliest peak: vetting the ads and dealing with politicians and their operatives who fight tooth and nail every attempt to, er, keep ’em honest. Things reach fever pitch right about now, two weeks out.
And it’s been brutal this year. For reasons I can’t quite fathom, this has been a particularly rough year for dealing with political ads in The Suffolk Times newsroom. Each “side” came into the campaign convinced that this newspaper was solidly in the other camp. When the Democrats think you favor the Republicans and the Republicans think you’re carrying water for the Democrats, you must be doing something right, I figure. We’ve been screamed at, threatened with a lawsuit and accused of taking sides — both sides — and that was just in the past week. The person on our staff whose job includes booking political ads is totally stressed out. One horrible encounter with a campaign representative had our managing editor questioning the sanity of anyone involved in politics. And I found myself exchanging harsh words with candidates on the sidewalk outside Poquatuck Hall in Orient Saturday afternoon.
We can’t wait for this to end.
The weird thing is, this is the unlikeliest group of men to be involved in such a down-and-dirty slugfest, if you ask me. Intelligent, well-spoken, and well-bred country gentlemen battling over who’s “most rural,” they’ve proved they can sling mud with the best of city street-fighters. To be fair, not every candidate went down this path. Some stayed above the fray. But the undercurrent has been nasty this campaign.
Much of this has gone down behind the scenes. But the mostly genteel exterior of this year’s campaign was going to be cracked wide open this week, though, with a couple of nasty ads submitted for publication that, in the end, won’t see the light of day — at least not in the pages of The Suffolk Times. We have the League of Women Voters to thank for that, at least indirectly. Here’s why:
A representative of the League is moderating the candidates debate we’re sponsoring tonight at Peconic Landing. (It’s free, open to the public and runs from 7:30 to 9 p.m., so come on down.) She suggested we ask the candidates to sign the League’s “fair campaign pledge.” It’s a straightforward statement by the candidate promising that he’ll conduct his campaign honestly and fairly; that he’ll discuss the issues and not engage in or condone defamatory attacks upon his opponent’s character; that he won’t misrepresent or distort facts about his opponent; and that he’ll publicly repudiate support from any person or group whose activities violate the pledge. When the candidates came to our office on Oct. 12 for endorsement interviews — we get the candidates for each post in the room together to answer questions and discuss the issues — we asked them to review and sign the pledge. They all complied — eventually. Some took a while — like a week or more. I guess it was a lot to mull over, all this honesty and fairness stuff. The ink was barely dry on the signature line when one candidate immediately submitted an ad that, without question, violated his pledge. If he hadn’t finally agreed to pull it in favor of an ad that wasn’t in violation, I’d be outing him right here and now. But he agreed to keep his word, albeit somewhat reluctantly.
The icing on the cake this week was one candidate who submitted an ad asking us to run it only if his opponent ran a negative ad. Whoa. We don’t go there, mister. You decide which ad you want to run, and we don’t ever — and I mean ever — let on about the contents of the adversary’s ad. That situation was worked out after much fussing and lots of e-mails and phone calls. You’d think we were brokering a cease-fire in the Middle East.
So much of this is so petty, so juvenile, so… Well, suffice it to say it’s what puts the “silly” in the season.