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Updated: 1/21/2010 - 4:18 AM

Theater renovations could start by this March
Town to Suffolk Theatre owner: It's all yours
  7 comments below

The Riverhead Town Board appears poised to end its push to take back ownership of downtown's Suffolk Theatre, which could pave the way for work to begin on the long-shuttered theater as soon as this spring.

"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 don't want to micromanage private businesses.' -Supervisor Sean Walter
Apollo's $500 million plans never came to fruition.

"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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7 comments found

Just open it!!! : 1/20/2010
A classy 'performing arts' theater makes much more sense for a long term anchor. Much more sense than a single or double-screen movie theater. A two-screen cinema option will NOT survive with 12+ screens now the norm.
Then, when people finally start to go downtown again, to see a SHOW, a modern movie theater would be the next logical build. Maybe in, or instead of, the old Woolworth's building.

my family has been in riverhead since the late 1700's, basically since riverhead was founded...and ive had previous family work at the theater and ive heard stories about what a wonderful place it once was. downtown riverhead has fallen apart do to idiots that run the town. I think if the theater were to open and be fitted with the right amenities for the oublic it would do great and spark downtown again. PLEASE PLEASE PLEASE RIVERHEAD...the town beggs up our theater a regular movie theater, and not some prissy east hampton performing arts center!!!!! we want our movie theater back!!!!!!!!

the theater : 1/19/2010
i love it muchez cuz every day in the summer i would walk by it an when i waz younger i remember lookin at it from across the street thru the window cuz my mom worked at sweezy's an at night it would light up =] it waz so kwel an now dat im 17 i would like to go in it cuz it looks so kwel i love it

What! : 1/18/2010
"Had the town not thrown logs in front of us, the theater very well could have been open by now," Mr. Castaldi said.
This is unbelievable! That theater, a vital KEY to any possible resurgence of our sad downtown, sat dormant for DECADES. Just days after a new town supervisor comes in, he removes the long-restricting reverter clause, and the theater is instantly on it's way to being renovated and OPENED FOR BUSINESS!!!
Town board members of the past five years, line up for your, well-deserved, swift kick in the a** by every single fed-up Riverhead taxpayer!!!

Re: Theatre in Riverhead : 1/16/2010
I have to say "Shame on You" to the Town of Riverhead for having the theatre on Main St. remain vacant for over twenty by one businesses dwindled away to a seedy-looking semi-ghost town. A big part of the problem is the red tape with the town...It takes forever for them to figure things out or to build. Whenever I visit Florida every few months, I see new condo complexes finished. It takes Riverhead Town a few years to push some paper around ...sad, but true. The Planning is very questionable????
With the cost of taxes here, the town of Riverhead should look like all the other townships in Suffolk County...not a ghost town. Someone is sacking the tax dollars$$$!! or sleeping on the job!

Theater renovations : 1/14/2010
Enough already !
The Theater has cost the Riverhead Taxpayer way too much ! Its old and needs too much work !
and even if it does re-open some day ? it will cost even more money to maintain the building !
Has anyone talked to the people that run the other theater's mentioned in the article ? Are they turning a profit ? just getting by ? or taking out more loans to stay alive ? The Suffolk Theater could end up like the SKATE PARK !

: 1/14/2010
What the taxpayers really want is for the town to play an active role in using the theater as another key element in revitalizing downtown.
Patchogue, Westhampton Beach, Southampton village, Port Jefferson, etc [nationwide] have all been able to make their old movie houses fuctional draws to their downtowns.
Yet here the Suffolk Theater sits dark for 23 years, two-thirds of those years while under town ownership/control.
The BID and the town's community development agency need to play an active role to make this happen.

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