Southampton Town Board members met publicly for the first time last week with the newly designated “master developer” who will lead the effort to revitalize the commercial district near the traffic circle in Riverside.
At a work session on Thursday, December 5, board members quizzed representatives of Renaissance Downtowns of Nassau County about how they would spur development in the hamlet, partner with property owners, and generate the massive amounts of financial investment that will be necessary for the sort of revitalization envisioned.
Renaissance is a for-profit business that would be investing its own capital into the effort. The company was awarded the job after the board reviewed three requests for qualifications from firms interested in taking the lead on the revitalization project.
In a presentation that was more than an hour long, the developers pitched their multifaceted approach as a game plan that seeks to drive a broad spectrum of commercial development through a wide-reaching campaign of public outreach, private investment and hand-holding with land owners who may be having a hard time finding viable commercial uses for their land.
Public financing will be a key component of the revitalization, though not on the part of the town, according to company representatives. When questioned by Town Board members about the financial risks of the proposal, the developers stressed that they, along with the property owners that they recruit, would be taking it on when they redevelop their properties.
The developers explained that one of the keys to their approach is tapping into the many state-funded economic development programs available for just such a revitalization effort. A similar project in Glen Cove drew some $140 million in public funding, and another in Huntington received $5 million. The town has already taken a significant step through that funding door with its securing of a more than $200,000 grant to examine blighted properties in the region, know as a Brownfields Opportunity Area, or BOA, grant.
“Overall, about $1 billion a year is given out through the state,” Sean McLean, the vice president of planning and development for Renaissance Downtowns, and a Flanders resident, told board members. “In Wyandanch, it led to $40 million of public money being put into the project—and it all started with $250,000 in BOA money.”
The key to attracting the public funding, Mr. McLean continued, is showing the state that private investment is strongly behind such a project, at rates three to five times greater than the sought-after public support. He added that securing that commitment is part of the critical role that Renaissance will take on in Riverside, while also noting that the firm has deep pockets.
The board and the town’s planning staff will first lay out the ground rules by which the area to be revitalized may be developed, through zoning and environmental restrictions. Renaissance, they said, will then rally property owners so they are part of a team of developers.
“We create joint venture partnerships … to create institutional interest,” Mr. McLean said. “Multiple developers coordinated by us and in partnership with us. They don’t come into the picture until we’ve all agreed what the game plan is, then they play by the rules.”
Southampton Town would be the seventh municipality, and the fifth on Long Island, that Renaissance is working with on similar commercial district revitalizations. While the templates they have used in places like Wyandanch, Huntington Station, Glen Cove and Mystic, Connecticut, are all different—and will be different from Riverside’s as well—company officials explained that their approach will be the same. Essentially, they work to enlist property owners, compile parcels of land and bring in members of the public—the crucial future customers—before choosing the type of development that will anchor the revitalization. The developers intend to follow a similar blueprint in Riverside.
Mr. McLean said the years of task force meetings to discuss the sort of development possible and likely in Riverside have taken care of a lot of the legwork that Renaissance would normally have had to do in the run-up prior to starting such an initiative.
Board members said their main focus was to make sure that the Riverside revitalization did not die on the vine like one in nearby downtown Riverhead did in recent years.
“We want to avoid the model across the river,” Town Councilwoman Bridget Fleming said. “There’s many, many, many empty storefronts because someone came in a bought a lot of property and then left.”
The company’s approach, both Mr. McLean and Renaissance Downtowns CEO Donald Monti explained, will start with reaching out to property owners in the district targeted for redevelopment to discuss with them their goals and hopes for the future. Many property owners, they said, are incapable of taking on substantial redevelopment on their own because the financial investment and logistics are too great.
But with Renaissance leading, and funding, a broad regional redevelopment, and handling the multitude of permitting and other logistical aspects of such a wide-scale effort, partnerships will bring in other property owners, they said.
“Ours is the risk capital, the upfront seed money,” Mr. Monti said. “It’s basically a family of developers that is created. Our job is to make sure they love the idea of the master development … so they are excited about moving forward.”
Using business models developed through earlier task force discussions and Renaissance’s own meetings with community members and crowd source outreach, the company will draft a template of development. Renaissance will then enlist area property owners, either through partnerships, offers to purchase their land outright or work with owners who prefer to develop on their own. Mr. McLean said the company has already been contacted by four property owners in the Riverside area who are interested in what their company has to offer.
“The intent is to put private property owners at ease,” Mr. Monti said. “Then find out what their goals and objectives are. Are they in it for the long haul?
“We do an assessment and try to encourage them to be partners with us,” he continued. “We’re going to be here for six, eight, 10 years, and we want every day to be pleasant.”