Paul Pontieri has been mayor of the Village of Patchogue since 2004. Patchogue has transformed its downtown from a struggling commercial area riddled with empty storefronts into a cultural and entertainment destination with new apartments and townhouses. The Village is located on Long Island’s South Shore, 60 miles east of New York City. We talked about the revitalization of Patchogue in summer 2014.
Critics worried that New Village, a new mixed-use development in the heart of the Village, would be too tall. We know from our Long Island Index survey research that this is a concern many Long Islanders have about development in their downtowns. How tall is New Village? What do you think about its height?
Paul Pontieri: It’s a 5-story building at the corner of Main Street and North Ocean Avenue. It seems imposing, but as the brick façade goes up, it becomes more a part of the block.
With regard to new downtown development in Patchogue, you’ve said, “We always have a tendency of worrying about what’s going to happen if we do it, versus worrying about what’s going to happen if we don’t do it.” What drives your decision-making, if not fear?
Pontieri: When I took over as Mayor, I focused on things that needed to be done without the political fear of the next election. I needed to put feet on the street.
Pontieri: Patchogue has transitioned itself from a boatbuilding/fishing economy in the early 1800s; to tourism (in the late 1800s, we had 1,000 hotel rooms); to a seat of government for the Town of Brookhaven (until 1986) with a W.T. Grant store, Woolworth’s, Penney’s, Swezey’s Department Store, Bee Hive Department Store, 3 movie theaters, and many other businesses. Today we have 6 stores that have been on Main Street for over 70 years, and 2 for over 85 years.
[In the 1990s], Mayor Stephen Keegan realized that the downtown needed an anchor that would bring people to Main Street. Today, the Theatre brings 140,000 people each year, which makes us a destination for entertainment. It’s a true community theatre. There’s everything from dance recitals, local talent shows, and middle school graduations to Ronan Tynan and Mickey B’s Oldie Shows. The variety of productions, involvement of the community, and Village Board’s commitment to the Theatre’s success has made it the anchor of downtown. The Theatre is owned and supported by the Village. We’re putting a new roof and new seats in this year. We have an active Theatre Board that brings in new acts and productions, and the Theatre has 3 full-time employees and 75 volunteers. Gateway Playhouse from Bellport plays a vital part by bringing high-quality live productions to the Theatre. The shows draw 800 to 1,000 people to our downtown. In turn, that has enticed restaurants to invest and open.
The Theatre has performing arts, and now with Artspace [new live-work space for artists] we have fine arts. Artspace has turned Patchogue into a destination for the arts and has taken a downtown that for 90 years was a commercial center and turned it into a center for the arts, music, and dining. Artspace also includes a little-known jewel, the Plaza Cinema and Media Arts Center (PlazaMac Theater), where independent and first-run films and live performances from the New York City Met are shown.
Tell me more about the role of the Patchogue Arts Council (PAC) in cultivating such a remarkable arts scene.
Pontieri: The PAC played a critical role in convincing Artspace to come to Patchogue. They rent gallery space in Artspace for shows and exhibits for artists from around the region, including New York City. They have played an integral part in the rebranding of Patchogue.
In addition to the Arts Council and Village government, what other organizations have been instrumental in bringing back the downtown?
Pontieri: The support of the Greater Patchogue Chamber of Commerce has been a vital piece of the puzzle; their support has been key to our success. But the real strength comes from the cooperation of all entities; for example, the Grants Committee [of the Greater Patchogue Foundation, which is the Chamber’s 501(c)(3) component] brings together the Village, the Chamber, the Business Improvement District (BID), the library, the YMCA, and other groups. Organizations in the Village that do not have tax-exempt status can use [that of the Greater Patchogue Foundation] when applying for grants.
The director of Patchogue’s BID has said, “We will use our natural assets, the waterfront, which support the tourism trade, to bring the people back to Main Street.” Tell me more about how you’ve leveraged your natural assets to make downtown Patchogue more successful.
Pontieri: It’s about bringing people to the Village: 30 acres of parkland on [Great South] Bay, open to all; Fire Island National Seashore and Davis Park Ferries to Fire Island; 5 great restaurants on the water; a Long Island Rail Road train that drops you off 1,000 feet from downtown and 500 feet from a ferry to Fire Island. All these things scream “Come to Patchogue!”
When I recently visited your downtown, I found it to be full of surprises—in a way that made me want to keep coming back. One of my favorite idiosyncrasies was a storefront that’s a coffee shop on the side facing Main Street and a bank on the parking lot side, divided by a simple glass partition on the interior. What do you love most about downtown Patchogue?
Pontieri: I feel a quiet sense of satisfaction when I stand under the marquee of the Theatre before and after a show and see people on Main Street, walking hand in hand, safely and comfortably down the street. It reminds me of Patchogue in the 1960s—a bit quirky, but also very comfortable.
Your library is still located downtown—it never left for a larger space on the outskirts of town. What role do the library and other civic buildings play in keeping downtown Patchogue vibrant?
Pontieri: The Village has several major civic buildings on Main Street. We have a new YMCA, Briarcliff College, an annex of Brookhaven Hospital, and the 6th District Courthouse, all of which have become vital assets to our Village. The library in the center of the Village shows our commitment to being life-long learners. It’s a gathering place for young and old. But more importantly, it has become a learning center for our diverse community. From English as a Second Language (ESL) programs to citizenship programs, it serves all who come through the door. The library was my connection to the Ecuadorian community in 2008, when Marcelo Lucero was killed. Without their support, this tragic event would have divided the community.
You’ve spoken in other interviews about how Patchogue’s Main Street welcomes immigrants. What’s the role of your downtown in welcoming diverse groups of people to the Village?
Pontieri: It’s not a matter of welcoming them as immigrants, [but rather] welcoming them as merchants. It’s not concerning yourself with what or whom they sell to, but making [them] a part of Main Street life. When they put the key in the door in the morning, they are merchants, not immigrants.
We often hear from communities on Long Island, especially in Suffolk County, how difficult it is to build downtown because of lack of sewers/sewer capacity. You increased the capacity of the Village’s wastewater treatment plant from 500,000 to 800,000 gallons per day. How were you able to do this?
Pontieri: When I came into office in 2004, it was my first priority. I knew if we didn’t upgrade the system, it would fail and the Village would fail. I made friends with those with power and money (politicians), those who knew the environmental concerns (New York State Department of Environmental Conservation (NYSDEC)), and those who wanted to develop in Patchogue. I [worked to get them to] buy into my vision for my community, and they did.
For the Long Island Index’s ParkingPLUS Design Challenge, dub Studios designed a parking deck as part of a shared parking system called Main Street Brackets. The parking garage proposed by dub would be airy, open, and green: “a parking structure that welcomes trees and flowers.” Patchogue previously had a parking garage, which was torn down. What was the old garage like?
Pontieri: It wasn’t well built, and it was not very inviting. The old garage was dark with narrow staircases. It was a great idea that showed no imagination, and unfortunately had to be taken down.
The Main Street Brackets design would make downtown Patchogue’s parking lots a more integral part of downtown; for example, dub envisions that Artspace could add outdoor gallery space to surface parking areas. What do you think of this idea? How does it compare to the lots as they function today?
Pontieri: The lots are not connected to each other or Main Street very well. Dub’s design and ideas for outdoor galleries would make the whole experience when coming to town much more exciting and rewarding. Their plan connects the lots to other lots and to Main Street.
Some Long Islanders say that Patchogue is a bubble, an anomaly—that your success could never be replicated elsewhere on Long Island. How do you respond to that?
Pontieri: I believe it can. We are not miracle workers here. We are just hard workers, who understand that doing nothing is not an option, and that it is about the Village, not about us. Our Village government [recognizes that] every decision we make affects our neighbors and our community.
Interview has been condensed and edited.