Riverhead is inching closer to following the path of cities including Columbus, Houston, Kansas City, Providence, and Rome, all of which have lit their cities aglow as part of WaterFire—an internationally known river-based art installation of bonfires suspended above the water.
“The best way to describe it—we are in very serious and intense preliminary and organizational discussions with many entities and three municipalities,” said Frank Zappone, the Southampton Town deputy supervisor.
In August, a small team gathered in a “Creative Placemaking Walkabout,”’ where they physically assessed downtown Riverhead, Peconic River and relevant surrounding areas. The team included Lisa Lowenstein, a WaterFire representative; Allan Redfern, a project director at WaterFire International; Chris Kempner, Riverhead community development director; Siris Barrios, community liaison at Riverside Rediscovered; Kathy Eiseman of Nelson, Pope & Voorhis, the environmental planning firm working on the project; Diane Tucci, an event marketing specialist, photographer and 4th generation local resident; and WaterFire International intern TJ Buckley.
The process started a year ago when Lowenstein was vacationing in the community. “She became very much aware that some of the geography and community needs associated with WaterFire installations were present in the Riverhead and Riverside area,” Zappone said.
WaterFire isn’t merely floating fiery braziers—it’s a public art phenomenon that brings tens of thousands of visitors to individual installations serving as a major boon to local and regional economies.
According to data from WaterFire International, the average number of visitors per lighting in Providence is 75,000. To date, there have been a total of 29.92 million visitors in 265 lightings.
In Sharon, Pennsylvania—which has a population of 13,760 as of 2013 according to the United States Census Bureau compared to Riverhead’s population of 33,506 as of 2010—WaterFire brings 40,000 average visitors per lighting to the Shenango River.
“The challenge that Riverhead and Riverside have faced for the past 40 years is that they have been go-through communities,” Zappone said. “This could be transformational.”
But, many hurdles remain and many questions remain unanswered regarding fiscal feasibility and infrastructure demands.
“We met with Allan from Providence last week and discussed what kind of things would need to happen like opening up the waterfront and making sure there’s enough food. If the restaurants can’t handle it should we bring in food trucks? What are our transportation options? How many shuttles are we going to need if, say, we take over the parking at Suffolk Community College?” Eiseman said.
The firm became involved through the Brownfields Opportunity Area (BOA) program, a grant from New York State which focuses on redevelopment of underutilized sites along the Peconic River and Route 25. “The whole idea behind the BOA program is that the community can use the money in creative ways,” Eisman said. “We’re just kind of diving in now to the plans.”
Those plans include money. “The largest obstacle is finding a funding source,” Zappone said, estimating the cost for hosting WaterFire as anywhere between $2 million and $4 million. He said substantial funding will come from public-private partnerships. “It’s not something that the communities are going to burden the taxpayers with.”
Another hurdle? Regulatory agencies. There are sensitive wetland areas and multiple jurisdictions involved in the process. “Working with the DEC [Department of Environmental Conservation] will be an unanswered question at this point as what we’ll be allowed to do,” said Sean Walter,the Riverhead Town supervisor. He’s hopeful though, since the Southampton side of Peconic River is “clogged with garbage and invasive species.”
Besides funding and besides labyrinthine bureaucratic processes, there’s the question of infrastructure demands. Can the infrastructure in place now carry the burden of such an event?
“The Polish fair can be up to 50,000 people and so can the Country Fair. Greenport has the Maritime Festival,” said Kemper making a case that the town isn’t new to accommodating a crowd. “We want to get to a plan where we don’t choke out the businesses downtown.”
Part of devising such a plan is gathering data. “We have to take into consideration garbage, traffic, police—public safety is definitely a concern,” Eiseman said. It’s her firm that has gathered data on traffic and the demographics of the community providing what Kempner described as a “breakdown of all the people that are easily accessible.”
These studies have highlighted segments of society. According to Kempner, adult, well-educated, married homeowners might want to eat out more while families with young children plan day trips to the Long Island Aquarium and Splish Splash. A senior lifestyle might involve sipping coffee on Main Street. Mostly, people like “eclectic things,” Kemper said. And, usually people will spend $50 to $100 per trip.
“[Riverhead] was a county center,” Kempner said. “Then, buildings became decayed and out of date. We didn’t have incentive for reinvestment, but now we do.” Noting the abundance of new businesses downtown like Vital-A-Tea, Pera Bell, and Vines & Hops, along with growing interest in real estate from the likes of Manhattan broker Georgia Malone, Kempner said it “took local people that had vision” to change from a town that was “vacant,” “scary” and “unsafe” to one that’s a potential haven for family entertainment.
“We’re really excited about this. The more people we bring to downtown, the more activity, the better the entire community is going to be,” Walter said. “Hopefully we find the right grant that has the same vision. We haven’t found the right philanthropic organization, but I think we will.”
Walter’s hopefulness was a shared sentiment among community leaders. Zappone called WaterFire on the Peconic an “ultimate probability” and many spoke with a “when” not “if” tone. Patricia Snyder, the executive director of the East End Arts Council, which played a role introducing WaterFire to constituents across the East End, said she planned on the Arts Council being part of the artistic process “when [WaterFire] does roll out.”
Several phases of the project will be completed over the course of the next month, including working with and interviewing stakeholders in the community to answering questions regarding the human resources side, analysis of the physical opportunities and constraints, transportation and lodging potential, and current usage of sites surrounding the river.
It’s all about answering those questions and confronting those obstacles. “How do we get WaterFire to come to town? Because it’s a game changer,” Eiseman said.
Officials hope to get WaterFire lightings started some time next year.