Huge Projects: Luminati, Riverhead Mountain and the Short-Eared Owl

Short-eared owl
Photo: mycteria/123RF, iStock

Probably the best and worst thing that ever happened to the Town of Riverhead was when the Grumman Aircraft Company sold them 2,900 acres in Calverton for $1. This was in 1998. There was a chain-link fence with barbed wire along the top around this property until then. Grumman tested aircraft here. You had to get past an armed entry gate to get in. There were two runways. Their last hit was when they tested the F-14 Tomcat they designed for the Navy (the plane in the Tom Cruise movie Top Gun) here. After that the company went downhill. Their aircraft designs were not hits. They went into the canoe business. They went into the bus business. Finally, in 1994, they merged with Northrop Aviation and moved to California.

The merry-go-round on the property used by Grumman employees at picnics in Calverton was a $1 gift to Greenport, where it is today, turning merrily around for the tourists on the waterfront downtown.

The rest of the property, with the huge buildings and the runways, was sold to the Town of Riverhead for $1. But this was another matter. What would Riverhead do with it? Perhaps it could be an industrial park? They called it the Enterprise Park. A small part of the property was sold to a developer for commercial use. The rest remained idle. Donald Trump proposed the place for a movie studio around 2000. That didn’t happen either. Nor did a plan to make it into a NHRA racetrack.

Then, in 2008, along came this plan to make it a competitor to Disneyland. This was called Riverhead Resorts. A huge British firm that built theme parks got an option to buy the property. They would build a lake with ferryboats crossing it to five different theme parks. The most impressive of them was to be a 600-foot-tall artificial mountain inside, where one could slalom down an artificial ski slope 12 months a year. There would be an equestrian center, a spa, a botanical garden, a wilderness resort, campgrounds, a sports park, a seaport-style village, a sports complex and a snowboarding center.

Riverhead Town looked at this wide-eyed. Well, Splish Splash had a successful facility nearby. The contract said they would pay millions. They wouldn’t pay it right away. They put down a $2 million nonrefundable deposit to keep the deal alive.

Now, there doesn’t seem to have been much of a downside with this project. The town had paid $1 for the property.

However, there was another problem. Endangered short-eared owls were found on the property. These owls, on their way migrating south, stop at Calverton to mate every year. The environmentalists were up in arms. The ski mountain people wavered.

In 2010, Town Supervision Sean Walter said the town did not receive a $3.9 million payment, which was part of the deal, on time (the company eventually paid). The whole project ended before the first shovel of dirt was dug from the ground. This was during the recession.

Would it have been good for Riverhead? Well, with a Town budget of about $54 million every year, an extra few million every year would come in handy. But there are so many other things for a town board to have to discuss and decide upon, was this distraction worth it? In the back of the town council’s collective mind was always the thought that the $54 million budget might soon be an over the moon figure like $300 million. How do you process that? But those were chickens that hadn’t hatched yet, and then didn’t.

Soon there was another proposal. Make it a rock concert site. A plan was put forward to have the Beastie Boys and Radiohead headline the first of them. But that didn’t happen. There was also the parachute jump operation. Do you notice that almost everything seems to involve things up in the air pretty high? The parachute jump school actually worked out well. The owls, when they were there, probably looked up in admiration at the chutes coming down. But then, in 2015, the school, which operated from just one building on the site (and used a runway occasionally), shut down because the owner was moving on.

Town Supervisor Sean Walter told me, when we discussed all this, that Enterprise Park seemed to be “the place where bad ideas come to die.” And that certainly had been true.

Then came Daniel Preston, a New Yorker with business in the electronics and aviation industries, who announced that he would bring Luminati Aerospace to Riverhead. He paid a reported $3.4 million to buy the Skydive Long Island site. Here’s what he had in mind.

There are 4 billion people on the planet who do not have access to the internet. His firm, with dozens of industry visionaries on board who have expertise in aircraft design, defense contracting and adaptive flight control, together with the patents he already owned, would build a major high-tech aviation firm on the property making perpetual stratospheric flight possible. These aircraft, built from indestructible carbon fiber, would hover in the stratosphere and, powered by solar panels and the solar wind, would be able to beam the internet out to all 4 billion of these people.

He would pay a reported $40 million in cash for 1,600 acres of the former Grumman property (600 acres are buildable), and would move in with facilities to construct airplanes made of carbon fiber. He has machinery now at the former Skydive property. There’s a $19.4 million 45-ton aircraft-making machine. “For lack of a better explanation, this is a jillion dollar 3D printer of airplanes,” he told Riverhead Local. As many as 2,000 jobs would be created in the next five years. “We’re going to show the world that Long Island’s still viable in aerospace manufacturing,” he said.

“There’s a lot of aerospace structures that need to be bulletproof with carbon fiber,” he also toldRiverhead Local. He said he had the patents. He would sell bulletproof lightweight body armor for military aircraft, for weapons, handguns, ammunition. The assembly line would be running constantly. They already had the first three aircraft in contract, he said.

His background, he said, was as an aeronautical engineer. He’d founded the aircraft company Atair Aerospace, Inc. in 2001. He left and rode out a non-compete after he sold it, the story said, and now he’s back.

As for skeptics who have wondered about his credentials or those working with him on this start-up—DuPont and Facebook—he told Riverhead Local that “I’ve got four of my aircraft in the Smithsonian. One is hanging opposite the Wright flier. Calling us a start-up is just really uninformed.” Well, he does have aircraft in the Smithsonian—but in the permanent collection of the Smithsonian Cooper-Hewitt Design Museum in Manhattan. The Wright’s flier is in Washington. There are other questions of transparency that people are looking into.

Since that interview, Riverhead is proceeding carefully, step-by-step, hoping this time something is for real. If approved, Luminati would be buying a $40 million deal.

In the last few weeks, billionaire John Catsimatidis announced himself a major backer of Dan Preston. Catsimatidis, who has had a house in the Hamptons for many years, owns Red Apple Group, a real estate and aviation company, the United Refining Corp. in Riverhead, and the Gristedes supermarket chain. He ran for Mayor of New York two years ago. Catsimatidis sent out a press release noting that his “United Refining Energy Corp. has more than sufficient financial resources to provide the financing necessary” to move forward.

And indeed, things are moving forward. If all is well, there will be a public hearing in the fall.

As yet, however, we have not heard from the short-eared owl.

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