It will be, if completed, the largest real estate deal in the history of Long Island. The parcel on the market, part of Enterprise Park at Calverton, is so vast it can be seen from outer space. Riverhead Town officials are almost set to close on the sale.
Then again, proponents of the proposal point out that has been said many times before over the years.
It’s been over 20 since Riverhead took title to the nearly 3000 acres from Northrop Grumman Corporation, an American global aerospace and defense technology company, to use as an economic generator. There have been some valid offers for the property, and some off-the-wall ones — like the indoor ski mountain — but nothing ever came of them. Now, closing looms. The town is in contract to sell 1644 acres of that land to Calverton Aviation and Technology, LLC, a Triple Five Group-affiliate. Triple Five Group is a conglomerate based in Alberta, Canada, which specializes in shopping malls, entertainment complexes, hotels, and banks, along with three indoor amusement parks.
“It’s time to close,” said longtime Riverhead Town Board member Jodi Giglio. The town’s take, she said, is “$40 million plus $400,000 in property taxes.” There are still a few roadblocks, she said, like final approval from the state Department of Environmental Conservation.
When finally realized, the possibilities are enticing. Hundreds of white-collar jobs become available, the local school district will most likely be able to fund a needed expansion, and the dormant aviation industry will return to the island for the first time since Grumman left. The entire East End economy could benefit.
But there are a lot more than “a few” roadblocks, said Rex Farr — and he’s one of them. A farmer and a Vietnam veteran, Farr has gathered a diverse group of opponents.
“We have over 400 concerned citizens,” he said. “I speak for 25 civic groups including the Sierra Club and the Pine Barrens Association.”
Farr’s Group, EPCAL Watch, assumes the town will not be able to fulfill its obligation — namely the sign-off from the DEC, and has accused the town of illegally negotiating with Calverton Aviation and Technology, which will become the property’s majority owner.
“The town held an illegal meeting, plain and simple,” he alleged on April 16, saying this issue is bigger than the town. “It goes all the way to Albany.”
The town responded the meeting was with its legal team, and shrugged off the would-be controversy.
The latest saga began in 2015 when Luminati Aerospace purchased a lot on the Grumman runway from Skydive Long Island amid much fanfare. Its president, Daniel Preston, announced plans to develop solar-powered aircraft for a major internet company. Some of the members of his board of directors included high-ranking counter-intelligence specialists. Soon, it became apparent the so-called board members had little-to-nothing to do with the venture.
There had been many other deals discussed, and some of the proposed uses for EPCAL were every bit as ambitious — and fantastical — as Luminati’s.
One developer, owners of Florida-based Palm Beach Polo & Country Club, proposed building a polo center on the undeveloped land. Another submitted plans for two golf courses and about 100 home on 500 acres. The Shinnecock Indian Nation wanted to build a casino there, and reportedly kicked some tires to no avail. In 2008, Riverhead Resorts broached the idea of building a $2 billion resort complex that would feature a 35-story indoor ski mountain.
Nevertheless, the Luminati deal harkened back to the notion that the former Grumman site would once again be a cutting-edge aerospace center.
Preston’s finances — and his resume — failed to hold up under the town’s muster. Then entered Don Ghermezian, whose family is estate owner of Triple Five Group.
“The town board should take warning from the arrogant and condescending attitude and behavior of the Ghermezians at a stage when they ought to be at their most civil and responsible to the community they seek to join,” Farr wrote in a letter to the town. There is also the matter of how extensive the company’s cash flow will suffer because of COVID-19, which has crippled mall business in many parts of the country.
Farr maintains the Ghermezians engineered “the secretive meeting with board member Giglio. There are also reports that money from the Ghermezians is showing up in Republican fundraising events.”
Republican Sean Walter was the town supervisor when the deal was struck, but Laura Jens-Smith, a Democrat, took over in 2018 and voiced concerns about the deal. Yvette Aguiar, also a Republican, took the seat back for her party and seems receptive to making the sale happen.
“What is clear is that the Riverhead Republican Party has married itself to making some version of this deal at EPCAL,” Farr charged.
Giglio acknowledged meeting privately with Calverton Aviation and Technology representatives in 2018 after a definitive agreement had been reached between the town board and the buyer, but she was cleared of any wrongdoing by the town’s ethics committee. She said she has become convinced the deal will bring jobs and revenue to the town.
“I’m glad we held onto it all this time,” Giglio said this week.
The town is in the process of obtaining approvals from the Suffolk County Department of Health and state DEC, which it needs to finalize a subdivision required to complete the sale.
“That DEC application was sent back [to the town] because it’s a nightmare,” Farr said.