Despite weeks of controversy, the owner of a food processing company looking to set up shop on Sound Avenue in Calverton is optimistic about his project -- and wants to set the record straight.
On Tuesday, John King, owner of J. Kings Food Service Professionals, Inc., a food service company, held an open house at 2711 Sound Avenue, the 108,000 square foot site of the former Blackman Plumbing Supply business.
If all goes well, King said he hopes to begin to have his food processing business operational in Calverton by mid-July.
But roadblocks have put the brakes on the project's progress: In recent months, at least one neighbor has protested that the proposed business needed an approval from the Riverhead zoning board of appeals before it could open its doors.
A ZBA meeting will be held on Thursday at 7 p.m.; the matter is on the agenda.
King addressed the rumors head-on: "Sometimes people start throwing rocks and don't understand what's happening," he said. "I'm not trying to take cheap shots but I'm not used to having to defend myself."
A neighbor who has opposed the project, Austin Warner, who asked that the ZBA rule on the matter, could not immediately be reached for comment.
In recent weeks, Georgette Keller, president of the Jamesport/South Jamesport Civic Association, questioned the "under the rug approvals" the project had received and said there were many issues still to be vetted. She added that the town had been listening to concerns.
King said on Tuesday that he came out to Calverton to set the record straight and to outline what operations would be taking place at the food processing facility.
His plan, King said, is to move a portion of his business -- the vegetable cutting and processing component -- from its current location in Bay Shore to Calverton. Also set up at the site will be the Long Island Farm Bureau and the Long Island Wine Council; both organizations will use the facility for storage.
According to King, up until this point, local farmers have not been able to sell their wares to chain supermarkets including Stop & Shop because they have not been able to effectively cool the produce to meet industry standards. That problem will be solved, King said, by four walk-in refrigeration units, or boxes, with different climate controls, some with misters, he plans to locate at the Calverton Avenue facility. A hydro cooler will be available to those who want to avail themselves of its use, he said; fees for services will be charged.
"We really think this is a great way to align ourselves with farmers," King said.
Moving forward, King said, East End farmers could be able to sell their produce along with King's produce, during the times of year when it's in season. Although a marketing plan is not firmly in place, the produce could feature "Grown on Long Island" labels or, possibly, the names of East End farms.
Also, King said, one feature of his business is the ability to cut up produce and package vegetables -- squash, for example -- so that it is easy to prepare at dinnertime for working mothers and others pressed for time who want to skip the laborious peeling process.
King, whose clients include high-end establishments including the Waldorf Astoria in New York City, said the building symbolizes a good move for his $200 million business, which, he said, needed to expand. "This is a great building at a great price," he said.
If the building had been purchased by the Long Island Farm Bureau, a non-profit, it would be taken off the tax rolls, he reminded.
Joe Gergela, Executive Director of the LIFB, said the project was in keeping with the long-term goal of sustainable Long Island agriculture, which would require some sort of regional distribution center for cold storage.
Initially, he said, a similar facility was proposed at Enterprise Park at Calverton, but when Gergela was contacted by King, the project fell into place.
King provided $500,000 and a matching grant was garnered from the state, Gergela said. "This was an opportunity we couldn't let get away from us," Gergela said.
Riverhead Town Councilman John Dunleavy applauded the plan. "The role of government is to help small business people. Government and the private sector have to work together. The number one thing Long Island needs is more jobs."
Councilwoman Jodi Giglio said while she believed the business would be good for Riverhead, it was unfair that Paulette Satur of Satur Farms had asked last year for a similar use but was told she would have to go to the ZBA to re-establish the use before proceeding.
"There should be a fair process for everyone," Giglio said.
King said some misconceptions needed to be addressed. There will be "one door," he said, at the facility, and a fear that an abundance of trucks will be coming and going is unfounded.
In addition, the belief that a bakery was setting up operations at the site is wrong, King said; a bakery has only asked to use the facility for storage. Work on the roof involves estimates for a new roofing, King said; no ventilation for a bakery is being installed.
King addressed the ZBA challenge and said it was his belief that the building was zoned for agricultural use.
In the end, Gergela said, the goal was to keep local agriculture viable. "This is about trying to help keep this industry on Long Island -- and alive on the East End," he said.
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