Same Old Next Big Thing At EPCAL?

Riverhead has been negotiating deals for the former Grumman Aircraft site in Calverton for two decades, but the town rarely closes on them. | Independent/Rick Murphy

It sounded like the next Star Wars sequel: sun powered, pilotless drones circling the earth providing internet service to those living remotely in the deepest jungles, and maybe doing some state-of-the-art spying on the side. (See Spy On The Side?)

It would seem most government officials would be skeptical of any suggestion that their towns host such a venture, and indeed it seemed that this proposal, championed by Luminati Aerospace, was dead in the water.

Then again, Riverhead is no ordinary town.

After all, this is the place that was going to approve a $2 billion resort complex replete with a 35-story ski mountain: an indoor ski mountain.

The ski mountain, which of course would be implemented by digging a deep hole, was one of many deals suggested for the property. It may not have even been the wackiest. One promoter wanted to bring Radiohead, Beck, the Beastie Boys and the Dead plus two dozen other top name rock acts to the former Grumman Aircraft property in Calverton — dubbed EPCAL or Enterprise Park —as part of a three-day festival it hoped would morph into a regular event.

These kinds of pie-in-the-sky projects might be suitable for Hollywood, and the former Grumman site is, after all, the place where the F-14 fighter jets used in Top Gun were put through their paces.

The rock festival idea went belly-up when the town reluctantly realized — two weeks before the event —that there weren’t nearly enough available cops in Suffolk County to herd an unruly crowd that would have approached 100,000 people.

Oh, and the precious Pine Barrens on an adjacent 6000-acre property host the region’s sole source of drinking water underneath, making local environmentalists more than a bit queasy at the thought of swarms of rock lovers camping out in the virgin woods — think Woodstock — all weekend.

That’s one of the reasons the Long Island Pine Barrens Society looked askance at the assorted projects earmarked for the EPCAL property, said the society’s executive director, Richard Amper. He thinks all the proposed projects ultimately reach the same point: “The money is not going to show.”

A decade ago, a proposal by a real estate developer to build resort homes on part of the parcel was stalled because of the fragile ecological state of some of the land on the property. Development ground to a halt altogether when the Department of Environmental Conservation confirmed the presence of rare species such as the short-eared owl and the eastern tiger salamander.

It’s difficult to perceive the endangered species adapting to the musings of Beck or the musical stylings of the Beastie Boys, or the cloud of sweet smelling smoke that would surely permeate the air. Amper can rattle off the assorted proposals: there was the major motion picture studio, and an air show, just to list two. “Calverton is the place where bad ideas come to die,” Amper said.

This Is Now

That was then. Now there is a new proposal that will put $40 million in town coffers and provide thousands of jobs, but it’s not Luminati, those involved stressed, even if the handprints are the same.

In 2015 Luminati paid $3.4 million for 16.3 acres at EPCAL owned by Skydive Long Island and later announced plans to develop solar-powered aircraft for a major internet company.

Last March Luminati Aerospace entered into a preliminary agreement to purchase the remaining available acreage at the EPCAL site, 2300 acres. Luminati CEO Daniel Preston had plans — big plans — for the property.

Preston caught the attention of town officials with two things: $40 million and a promise to provide 2000 jobs. “We’re going to show the world that Long Island’s still viable in aerospace manufacturing,” Preston said at a press conference last year.

Then wrinkles appeared.

Denise Civiletti, writing for Riverhead Local, said, “[Preston’s] past is full of outrageous claims and broken deals.” She outlined a litany of half-truths and downright lies attributed to him.

The Luminati deal, which was supposed to move to closure quickly, stalled; the contract between the town and Preston was never finalized, and by January, town officials were saying privately that the deal was dead.

Then, United Refining Energy chairman and CEO John Catsimatidis stepped in and offered to become a partner. That deal was nixed.

But like another flying entity, the phoenix, the project has risen again, though under a new name and a new public face.

Last December Newsday reported that Luminati Aerospace LLC struck an agreement with the venture capital arm of a large developer to finance the deal.

“Triple Five Ventures Co. LLC, owned by the Ghermezian brothers, has entered into a written agreement to finance and develop the property,” said Robert Hasday, a partner in Manhattan-based law firm Duane Morris LLP who represents Preston.

The Ghermezian brothers’ Edmonton-based Triple Five Worldwide Group is the developer of gigantic properties such as Minnesota’s Mall of America and New Jersey’s American Dream mall. But it also develops industrial properties like Enterprise Park.

Substantial Resources

On March 19 the Riverhead Town Board hosted a five-hour “qualified and eligible” hearing during which Triple Five officials explained why the town should sell them the property.

Triple Five’s CFO, Martin Walrath, submitted testimony attesting that his company has “the substantial resources to finance and develop billion-dollar projects.”

Nader Ghermezian, one of the four brothers and Triple Five’s chairman, made the point several times that Luminati and Preston no longer control the project. However, he acknowledged Preston owns 25 percent of the company.

It became readily apparent that Riverhead Town Supervisor Laura Jens-Smith would prefer not to deal with Preston. She reportedly asked for a written agreement between the company and

Luminati that is said to limit his involvement.

Ghermezian did produce a letter from Preston stating he was not a voting member of the corporation. The carrot being dangled is substantial: Triple 5 intends to develop one million square-feet of industrial space, invest $1 million in runway improvements (two runways), spend $1 million to light both runways, reactivate an existing GPS approach system, and provide enhanced security.

In addition, the company has hired Langan Engineering to “identify, delineate, and permit any potential impacts on environmentally sensitive areas on or near project sites.”

Amper, who has been there and done that, is still skeptical. “It’s equally unreal,” he said, when asked to compare the proposal to previous would-be ventures. “The idea they are going to reinvent the age of air transportation is preposterous. Those runways haven’t been used for decades.”

Ghermezian acknowledged the previous fiascos planned for the EPCAL site, referencing the efforts as “bad experiences” but promised his efforts would bear fruit.

“The land has been sitting here 20 years and nothing has happened to it,” Ghermezian said at the meeting. He claimed Triple Five would create jobs like it did in Silicon Valley. “I understand you have had bad experiences with other people,” Ghermezian said. He told those gathered he was trustworthy and that the town was “lucky” he came forward.

Amper has his doubts. “The only reason why the town is listening is because it is in dire financial straits.”

In fact, he pointed out the next Big Thing has already made an appearance on the horizon: The solar company sPower recently told the town board it wants to buy the remaining town-owned land at EPCAL for more than $40 million to build solar energy panels.

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