After a number of high profile crime reports in the Riverhead area recently, merchants on Main Street have mixed reactions.
Some business owners are battening down the hatches and amping up security systems; others feel concerns over a spike in crime are unwarranted.
Crimes reported around Riverhead in recent weeks include a string of armed robberies, including a hold-up at Barth's Drug Store on East Main Street; a couple held up at knifepoint after leaving the aquarium; a carjacking on Sound Avenue; and, most recently, armed gunmen who robbed CVS on Route 58. Another armed robbery was also reported on Doctors Path recently.
Barry Barth, owner of Barth's Drug Store, said he and employees were heartened to hear two men were charged with the robbery of his pharmacy.
"We feel relieved that they're off the street," Barth said. One individual, however, Barth said, has not yet been indicted.
Recalling the impact the experience had on his employees, Barth said, "It was extremely unnerving for the pharmacist and the technician that were here. It was very, very scary. We've been here since 1917 and never had anything like this has ever happened."
The robbers, Barth said, only asked for money. "They didn't ask for narcotics or controlled substances," he said. "And they took random stuff of the shelves. But you never know the mental state of the person carrying the gun. I've always told everyone here to give them whatever they want, so they get out ASAP."
After the crime, Barth said he "stepped the security system" for the business.
Barth also said the Suffolk County Community College Culinary Arts and Hospitality Center put cameras outside the perimeter of the building.
According to Drew Fawcett, associate dean for institutional advancement at Suffolk County Community College, "The college is mindful of maintaining a safe and secure environment across all of its locations. And as part of these security measures, surveillance cameras have been installed around the perimeter of the Suffolk County Community College Culinary Arts and Hospitality building." But, he added, "We haven't had any concerns voiced by our students in that location."
Speaking of the new security measures, Barth said, "It's a shame everyone has to spend this kind of money."
Despite the robbery at his store, Barth said he does not feel unsafe. "You need to pay attention," he said. "You never know. Those guys came in at 6 p.m. I can't close up at 4:30 in the afternoon and stay in business."
Steven Wirth, owner of Digger's on West Main Street, said he has had security in place. "We have done as much as we can do, including a security system and at least two or three employees at any given time," he said. "Other than that, there's nothing you can do. If someone decides to be a criminal, he's going to be a criminal."
Deeper, systemic problems exist, Wirth said; a growing population, he said, equals a spike across the board in crimes. In addition, he said, today's media allows for instant coverage of crimes worldwide.
And other problems exist: "Perception is reality," Wirth said. "Unfortunately for us, our founding fathers in this town decided 30 years ago that Section 8 housing and methadone clinics on Main Street were a good idea. And to put a jail in Riverside -- with a bridge so that people can walk into Riverhead, into the bodegas across the street. So the first thing people see is a handful of people that don't look nice -- and that's your first impression. It's unfortunate, becaue it's at the very mouth of our town."
Despite the recent crimes, Wirth said the winds of positive change continue in downtown Riverhead. "This is a great town with great people," he said. "More businesses are opening soon. We're opening a brewery. People are spending a lot of money."
Wirth credited Riverhead Town Supervisor Sean Walter and Police Chief David Hegermiller for doubling police patrols downtown and addressing the issue quickly.
Crime also flows in from Southampton Town, where a rash of incidents in Riverside and Flanders has residents crying out for more police protection.
"We need a border wall between Southampton Town and Riverhead," Wirth said.
Crime, Wirth said, "is always going to exist. But don't allow them to flaunt it in a place where people just want to go about their daily lives and bring their kids to school. Force them into the shadows -- get them out of sight. Cops have to be cops; we can't have politically correct cops. They have to be able to arrest the criminals and the judge has to give jail time."
On East Main Street, after a recent incident during which a couple was held up at knifepoint after a visit to the Long Island Aquarium & Exhibition Center, Johanna Zucaro, director of communications for the facility, said general manager Bryan DeLuca met with Hegermiller Thursday. "He shared with us that they've dramatically stepped up foot patrols and we, together, are actively exploring additional alternative options to improve public safety," Zucaro said.
Ray Pickersgill, owner of the Robert James Salon and also president of the Riverhead Business Improvement District's management association, said he has added extra lights around his store and will add more in the back. He and other BID members have asked for security cameras from the town for a few years, he said. "If the town won't agree, the stores will put them in the back and the front," he said.
Still, Pickersgill said he is not worried about crime as an issue. "I'm not concerned," he said. "I've been here eight years and I've never had a problem."
Vic Prusinowski, who owns Cody's BBQ & Grill on East Main Street, said those who are fearful of a crime epidemic are far off the mark.
"We do not have a crime wave in Riverhead," he said.
Prusinowski, who served on the town board for 16 years and is a business owner, said a number of recent incidents, including a "terrible hit-and-run accident," and the Barth's robbery, have been reported.
But the town supervisor responded promptly with enhanced foot patrols, he added.
Prusinowski said he would support surveillance cameras downtown, adding that costs have come down and technology is wireless. Cody's, he said, has a video system currently that police utilize and review.
Crime, he added, is actually down in Riverhead compared to years' past.
"The problem with my fellow citizens, not the general public, is that some people have to absorb misinformation -- and there's a group of people that love to overreact, and comment on blogs, blowing things out of proportion. It's unfair to paint with a wide brush."
Downtown Riverhead, Prusinowski said, is experiencing "a great turnaround," with new restaurants and stores coming, the Suffolk Theater opening, and progress being made on the old Woolworth building. "It's slowly coming back," he said. "There are a lot of good things going on."
And, he added, the Riverhead police are "very, very vigilant. We have a night business and the police department does an excellent job."
Crime is up nationwide, Prusinowski said, due to a flagging economy.
"It's safe to be downtown," he said. "Police are around all the time."
Hegermiller said it's "true," that crime is not up overall in recent years. The recent spike, he said, "is a little blip that we had. Statistically, it's down."
Residents, he said, may have become fearful. "They shouldn't be," he said. "I haven't seen the stats for the past year yet, but I'm hopeful. Obviously, you always have to be aware of your surroundings, but I don't think there's anything to worry about."