Experts Talk Creating the Downtown Experience

Experts gathered last week for an open forum on planning the “downtown experience” in Suffolk County

This open panel hosted six experts in what a downtown planning process entails and gave residents, small business owners and elected officials the details needed to understanding how downtown areas are beneficial to the community.

The Suffolk County Economic Development and Planning office hosted the event that was sponsored by the Suffolk County Alliance of Chambers at the Cinema Arts Centre in Huntington. For two hours, the panel discussed the different downtown areas developments that Long Island has processed, including the positives, negatives and future goals of the county.

Theresa Ward, deputy county executive and commissioner of economic development and planning, started off the discussion about creative place making, the accommodation of planning, urbanization and sustainability in the community, that will build innovative areas for people to live and thrive. This idea stems from the downtown experience many Long Islanders have come to love, especially in areas like Patchogue that has recently had their own downtown renaissance.

Mayer Paul Pontieri of the village of Patchogue sat on the panel and was excited to share how his experiences helping Patchogue Village grow into the booming area that it now is. He said that the arts community was a major player in creating the ultimate downtown. “We are constantly telling the arts community, ‘we want you to make us a better place’,” he said. He added that in the village, murals have been painted by local artists on dozens of open spaces, which in hindsight helped reduce graffiti on its main street. It benefits all parities involved – it gives local artists a spot to showcase their work and makes the community look better.

Money is also always a problem, but there are several grants that the government offers specifically for this type of work and the panel encouraged cultural groups to reach out to their local legislators to inquire about them.

Talks of the arts community held a large part of Thursday’s discussion and the panel was all in agreement that local artists should be hired and commissioned to help build up the downtown areas.

Patricia Drake Snyder, executive director of East End Arts, sat on the panel and spoke of how Riverhead town also utilizes their local arts to spruce up the main street. “People want to believe in their downtown,” she said. One way the East End got people to start to care was getting the small businesses on Main to participate in window decorating during the holidays. It excited residents and was a fun competition for the business owners to get involved with one another – it also made the street look better and more festive.

“The arts are more than what you think of them to be,” Mayor Pontieri said. “Don’t forget the residents because they’re the ones paying the taxes to support the downtown.”

These downtown areas are streets and villages that can help small business owners, residents looking to socialize, millennials and people trying to stay on the island and boost the economy. There are issues with it like the fear of growing homeless people on the streets and problems with outdated zoning laws that make this type of growth difficult.

Although Huntington itself was not represented on the panel, Larisa Ortiz, principal of Larisa Ortiz Associates, Robert Lane, senior fellow for community planning and design of Regional Plan Association and Stephanie Fortunato, director of Providence’s Department of Art, Culture and Tourism, all gave their insight as to how downtown areas on Long Island and the ones that they worked on nationally could benefit all of Suffolk County.

State Sen. Phil Boyle listened in the audience and County Executive Steve Bellone stopped in to thank the panel and the different organizations involved in spreading the word on how downtowns can make a difference.

He said that creative place making and community planning go hand in hand. “By focusing on great design, we can build the type of places that make people feel good,” he said, “and I look forward to doing everything to keep this effort.”

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