Gift in Calverton: Merry-Go-Round, Navy Jets, Ski Mountain, Now This!

Calverton Long Island theme parks cartoon by Mickey Paraskevas
Cartoon by Mickey Paraskevas

Last December, the Town of Riverhead approved an agreement to sell the former Grumman Aircraft Testing Facility in Calverton for $40 million.

Now they are getting cold feet. And you can’t blame them.

The Town has “sold” these thousands of acres numerous times over, often to buyers with very wild and crackpot schemes that, in the end, always fell through.

They’ve made money from some of these buyers. One had to cough up $2 million or so to keep their “exclusive” rights to buy it from expiring. So from that perspective, it’s been a money-maker for the town at least for that much.

Early on, developers tried to make it a rock ’n’ roll music venue. (A show happened. After what happened, the town said no more.)

An attempt to make it a racetrack crashed. An attempt to make it a solar farm flamed out. A proposal to make it a shopping center foundered.

Another time—and this was probably the most famous—it was proposed as a 900-acre theme park that would rival Disneyland. There would be a racetrack, ferries and gondolas crossing an artificial lake, a convention center, a little Swiss Village and, its crowning achievement, a 35-story artificial mountain, inside which it would snow and be a ski slope year around.

Imagine! Skiing in July! Did I forget the theme park hotels? The jungle walk? The equestrian center? The evergreens and bushes on the mountain? The spas and the water shows?

The Town was selling this property to a group that claimed it built a ski mountain in Dubai. They would pay $155 million for the acres. Anyway, it was 2008, and as the investors went about raising what they said would be an estimated $2.2 billion for the project, the world suffered an economic calamity.

The developers said the price would have to be $105 million. The Town agreed, if Riverhead Resorts, as it was called, made another payment of $3.9 million. They didn’t. Poof.

Researching this article, I have found that before the town came to own it, this facility, with its two runways—one 10,000 feet and the other 8,000 feet—and two gigantic aircraft hangars, was operated from 1950 to 1996 as a secret military facility, mostly as an assembly plant and a jet plane testing airport, but also as the place where Grumman tested out the lunar roving vehicle they had won the contract to build.

In building it, they also built on this site a replica of the surface of the moon. The chosen American astronauts going to the moon came to Riverhead to walk around or drive the lunar rover around on the fake moon. So this had to be lifelike.

Is Riverhead—now that this has been revealed— therefore the actual “moon” that naysayers have said was walked on by our astronauts when they “pretended” to be on the moon? I always thought that was in Nevada.

The outfit that came in just before this current outfit was a man with a dream, Daniel Preston, who by his own account was a genius, a college student at age 12, a developer of revolutionary carbon fiber methods, builder of drones and mini-aircraft and a person wildly sought after by Silicon Valley.

He said he would move his recently established firm, Luminati, to this site in Riverhead and would employ thousands of people and build ground-breaking aircraft for the American armed forces. He already had orders needing to be fulfilled.

Turned out he could never prove his education claims, nor could he prove he was a founder or partner (rather than an employee) with earlier businesses. A whole lot else didn’t seem correct. For example, an experimental aircraft he said he built was shown on the site and flown around.

But then a German company said the plane being flown was made in their factory and who was this guy saying he created it? Preston said he’d made so many modifications that it was a new plane, but that was never proven, either. Dan Preston’s prospective backers were fleeing. And the town, when the time came, did not sell to him for what had reportedly been agreed would be $40 million.

Then, late last year, there came the chairman of the company that built and owns the Mall of America in Minnesota, American Dream Meadowlands in New Jersey (scheduled to open in March 2019) and the West Edmonton Mall in Canada. He is Nader Ghermezian, and in recent times his company has begun building a new project in Miami and, just a few months ago, purchased the recently shuttered Dowling College in Shirley for $14 million and will reportedly turn it into an aeronautical school to provide workers for what he has in mind in Riverhead.

They have essentially taken over for Luminati. (Preston is not a voting member of the new corporation.) In December, the Ghermezians and the town considered making an agreement with their shiny new company, Calverton Aviation & Technology (a joint venture with Luminati and Triple Five Ventures), that says they will build an aircraft factory and other factory buildings—a million square feet—to the industrial and commercial zoning requirement that the Town allows there.

A lot of local officials now—with new town board members—are expressing remorse about what was approved by the old town board just days before they left office in December. No money changed hands with this agreement. The requirements are vague. Deposits will come when it is further along, and at the closing, the buyer will hand over the entire $40 million.

What’s the problem? Currently, those objecting say the agreement leaves questions unanswered. For example, if they don’t build a huge aircraft facility there, the town would have no remedy to get the property back. (Presumably by returning the money?)

Riverhead can’t break this agreement, according to town lawyers, but there is a requirement that says the buyer has to show he can afford the $40 million and has lots of money rather than just being some fool looking for investors, which is what they had before.

Well, doesn’t “cash” or “certified check” mean it doesn’t matter? Does it matter? Well, perhaps a demand to see their books—this is a private company that has a right not to show its books—would cause them to spook and withdraw. It’s a long shot.

I think the Town was so caught up in battling over this for the last 20 years with people who didn’t have the money, that they are taken aback by someone who does. Up until now, this has been great entertainment for this newspaper and other media to write about, but in the zoning, seriously now, entertainment is forbidden on the site, since the Town is looking to serve up tons of jobs for its townspeople and wants factories.

Lest we forget, in 1998 the federal government gave this parcel of land to Riverhead Town as a gift. Is there something about this current deal that is not profitable? Perhaps they could get more for it later. Perhaps nobody will ever buy it.

You should also know that, if you walk along Main Street in downtown Greenport, you will come across that town’s pride and joy—a magnificent hundred-year-old merry-go-round with hand-carved horses, right on the waterfront.

Grumman presented this treasure as a gift to Greenport in 1995. When Grumman had its property in Riverhead, they bought this historic treasure, made year earlier in North Tonawanda, New York, so that families of the factory workers could take rides when company picnics were held. A perk of the Cold War.

I’ve read the agreement that the board approved with regard to Triple Five. In one part, it says if they find something amiss before they turn over the $40 million, they can back out and get any deposit they paid beforehand back. If this agreement offers more than that—like they close on the property and if they don’t like it they can get the whole $40 million back and keep the land too—well, I’m not a lawyer, but it has to be gone over to make sure such a stupid thing would not happen. And if that’s in there, forget everything I just wrote.

I still think Riverhead Mountain and the theme park would have been a whole lot of fun. But that’s just me.

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