Theater renovations could start by this March
Town to Suffolk Theatre owner: It's all yours
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"I don't want it back," said Supervisor Sean Walter, who took office Jan. 1 after winning election over Phil Cardinale, who served for six years. "I'd be happy with removing the reverter clause and putting [restrictions] on the property that say it must be developed as a theater.
"We want it to be profitable and to bring people to Riverhead. I don't want to micromanage private businesses."
The town, under Mr. Cardinale, sold the 76-year-old theater for $707,000 to Pike Realty, a company headed by Bob Castaldi, in February 2005. Mr. Castaldi was chosen from among three applicants who had answered a town-issued request for proposals for the theater. His plan was to renovate it into a performing arts center and single-screen movie theater.
But the contract included a so-called reverter clause, which said the town could take the theater back if the restoration was not completed within three years of the sale, which it wasn't. Town officials invoked the clause, saying at the time that Mr. Castaldi could not meet the deadline because he had made changes to his original plans, including his suddenly seeking to acquire additional land, convert the building to a dinner theater and build apartments on the property.
A lawsuit filed by Mr. Castaldi in October 2007 sought to prevent the town from taking the theater. He claimed the town deliberately stalled him because it instead wanted to give the land to Apollo Real Estate Advisors, which owned the adjacent property and was planning a large-scale project for downtown.
"I'm looking forward to getting back to work," Mr. Castaldi said this week. "It's a pleasure dealing with a new board that is business oriented."
He said he'll need time to work out the conditions ending the litigation but hopes to get his contractors back to work on the theater as early as March or April.
"Had the town not thrown logs in front of us, the theater very well could have been open by now," Mr. Castaldi said. Many in the community feel an up-and-operating theater could lead to a much healthier downtown, which is now plagued by vacant stores.
The Suffolk Theatre opened in December 1933 and operated as a movie theatre until it closed in 1987. Riverhead Town bought the property in 1994 for $425,000 and issued a $1.2 million bond to cover the purchase and renovation of the structure. In 2001, voters rejected a $4 million referendum to completely rehab the theater. Several subsequent plans to sell the theater surfaced but ultimately fell apart prior to the sale to Mr. Castaldi.
In separate interviews, town council members this week echoed Mr. Walter's sentiments on the theater issue.
"I believe the reverter clause is hindering the applicant's ability to finance the project," said Councilwoman Jodi Giglio. "The taxpayers, by referendum, decided they did not want to use taxpayers' money to revitalize the theater. Therefore, we should encourage and work to assist private industry to make the necessary renovations."
"I'm against enforcing the reverter clause," Councilman George Gabrielsen said. "I think the taxpayers don't want us to get involved in this, and I think private industry should develop it."
Councilman Jim Wooten said he's not opposed to removing the reverter clause in an agreement that would result in a restored theatre that will bring people downtown.
"I want it restored, and I want to see Mr. Castaldi provide the theater he assured us so long ago," Mr. Wooten said. "It belongs in private hands now and I feel that is the best way for the taxpayers."
Councilman John Dunleavy couldn't be reached for comment.
The next scheduled court date in Mr. Castaldi's case against the town is Feb. 5.
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