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Celebrate Park

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Eric Dubin, left, of The Whiskey Crows rocks Lake Avenue Sunday night, Aug. 6, during the Celebrate St. James concert series. Photo by Steven Zaitz

By Steven Zaitz

If you were strolling down Lake Avenue in St. James this past Sunday evening, Aug. 6, you might have been compelled to check the map on your phone to see if you were magically transported to Asbury Park, New Jersey.

Springsteen’s “Rosalita” rang out from Celebrate Park in the latest of the 2023 Summer Concert Series and this time it was The Whiskey Crows who got the people on their feet. The dynamic eight-piece band is an upbeat rock ‘n’ roll, twang and soul revue in the Jersey Shore bar band tradition. The band included a three-piece horn section.

Energetic front man Eric Dubin bounced around the stage and, thanks to the technology of wireless amplifiers, was able to sing and play while mixing with the crowd.

With a mix of Elvis, Dobie Gray, Mitch Ryder, St. James-resident Dubin and the boys played for two hours and had the crowd dancing with them in front of the canopied stage.

In addition to Dubin, the band features Mike Breier (bass and vocals), Rich Dashnaw (guitar and vocals), Andrew Rubenstein (drums), Joe Ferrante (keyboards and vocals), Mike Baratelli (saxophone), Josh Seifert (trombone) and Joe Boardman (trumpet).

As part of the Celebrate St. James Summer, a lucky raffle winner won the tidy sum of $318. Second place was slightly less lucky with the prize being a Whiskey Crows T-shirt.

Celebrate St. James Past-Present-Future is a nonprofit cultural arts organization. Housed in the historic St. James Calderone Theatre and built in the early 1900s, its mission is to preserve and celebrate St. James’ rich history and inspire an appreciation and knowledge of the arts in the community. 

Founded in 2017, Celebrate St. James was born as a nonprofit cultural arts organization by Jack Ader, Arline Goldstein and Natalie Weinstein to assist in the revitalization of the Lake Avenue district.

In November 2020, Town of Smithtown Supervisor Ed Wehrheim (R) and the Town Board joined Celebrate St. James in a groundbreaking ceremony commemorating the construction of Celebrate Park.

Blu Bayou, featuring the music of Linda Ronstadt, will play on Aug. 13 and the final concert will be Aug. 20 with SouthBound, which is heavily influenced by the music of the Allman Brothers.  

Celebrate St. James hosted its first Kids Community Earth Day Celebration on Saturday, April 22.

The event was held at the new Celebrate Park on Lake Avenue. Children had the opportunity to learn about nature and Earth Day with story time, plant sales and the opportunity to make their own terrariums. 

Attendees also enjoyed listening to live music, getting henna designs and visiting a rabbit and a miniature screech owl at the Sweetbriar Nature Center table.

St. James residents had a new park to visit along Lake Avenue this summer. On Tuesday, Oct. 18, elected officials, members of Celebrate St. James, donors and residents came together at Celebrate Park for an official dedication and ribbon-cutting ceremony.

Oct. 18 marked the official dedication of Celebrate Park in St. James. Photo by Rita J. Egan

The park sits where the Irish Viking pub was once located. The establishment had been closed for nearly a decade when Town of Smithtown officials considered tearing it down to make way for a park and municipal parking lot. When the bar was put up on a tax lien, the town worked with Suffolk County to acquire it through an intergovernmental contract.

Volunteers from the cultural arts organization Celebrate St. James worked with elected officials during the design and construction of the park, including soliciting donations for the brick walkways that feature stones embossed with local families’ names and special messages from residents. 

In November 2020, Smithtown Supervisor Ed Wehrheim (R), other elected officials and members of the community broke ground and officially unveiled the plans for the park. On Oct. 18, among those Wehrheim thanked was Suffolk County Executive Steve Bellone (D) for his part in making the park happen. Bellone was unable to be in attendance due to dealing with the recent county cyberattack issues. The town supervisor said everyone had a part in making the park a reality.

“This day marks completion of the third and final phase of the revitalization efforts in St. James,” Wehrheim said, adding that the town is working on a connection to the sewer line installed under Lake Avenue a few years ago.

The town supervisor said before he took office in 2017, he had counted 33 vacant storefronts on Lake — now there are less than a handful. With more people strolling the street, kids riding their bikes, the park and more, he compared it to a Norman Rockwell picture.

“Today we can see what can happen when a community, the good people who call it home and local levels of government all work together as one,” he said. “Today we get to enjoy the fruits of our labor and officially welcome the people of this great town to Celebrate Park.”

Today we can see what can happen when a community, the good people who call it home and local levels of government all work together as one.”

— Ed Wehrheim

Wehrheim credited the Celebrate St. James volunteers, especially former president Natalie Weinstein and current president Patricia Clark, for being a big part of the process.

Weinstein said the park came to fruition due to an “unusual administration and an unusual group of volunteers.”

“Both embody the vision of economic revitalization,” she said. “Both are committed to progress, and both attract the talent and cooperation of some pretty amazing people.”

Weinstein also credited St. James residents due to their “generous donations of dollars, service and talents.”

“We know St. James has always been a special place,” the resident of nearly 50 years said. “This little sleepy hamlet of Smithtown has a history worth sharing and perpetuating. It has been home to a famous architect [Stanford White], a New York City mayor [William Gaynor], countless vaudevillians and many hardworking people who, in good times and bad, helped their neighbors.”

Weinstein said the park was aptly named by the town’s public information officer Nicole Garguilo, a lifelong resident of St. James.

“Today we cut a ribbon to symbolically and actually turn a vision into reality, taking an eyesore in our community and transforming it into a place of pride for all, now and in the future,” Weinstein said.

Clark said in 2017, every time she drove through Lake Avenue and other parts of town and see so many empty storefronts, she thought, “This place is dying.” Later she discovered Weinstein and Celebrate St. James vice presidents Arline Goldstein and Jack Ader had noticed the same as she did and approached town officials to see how they could help revitalize St. James.

She said in addition to working on the park, Celebrate St. James aims to turn the former Calderone theater on Second Avenue into the St. James Community Cultural Arts Center.

“Today, we see our dream of this park become reality, and now we at Celebrate are once again on the verge of a community endeavor of unique proportions,” Clark said. “Once again it is time to come together to plan for the future for our children, for our seniors and for ourselves. Now is the time to preserve and cherish the past on which we build a future to serve the town for generations to come.”

Elected officials and community members break ground at the spot of the soon-to-be Celebrate Park in St. James. Photo by Julianne Mosher

As part of the Lake Avenue revitalization project in St. James, Celebrate Park is well under way to bring an inviting space to local residents.

Rendering of the planned Celebrate Park in St. James. Rendering from Town of Smithtown

On Wednesday, Nov. 4, Smithtown Supervisor Ed Wehrheim (R) joined other elected officials and members of the community to break ground at the soon-to-be Celebrate Park. The new park will sit on the lot formerly occupied by the Irish Viking bar located at 369 Lake Ave. and is part of an $8 million rebuild of St. James’ downtown.

During the press conference, Wehrheim said the project is seven months ahead of schedule.

“We are seeing the rebirth of this beautiful community,” he said. “Vacancies are down, assessed values are up and people are beginning to walk up and down Main Street again.”

The property where the bar sits was put up on a tax lien, and the town and Suffolk County worked together to acquire it through an intergovernmental contract. The space will eventually house a small park and municipal parking lot. The Lake Avenue entrance into the park will be through an arched ceremonial gateway flanked with informational brick piers. A clock will be centered at the top of the arch.

“The park is designed to provide a flexible inviting public space that is defined by classical elements that reflect the rich history of buildings and places in our Historic St. James Cultural and Arts District, and that will be a centerpiece of the downtown revitalization,” said Bob Retnauer, architect with RDA Landscape Architecture of St. James.

Celebrate Park is planned to be arranged around a classical ellipse walkway with the outer edge bordered by brick seat walls. The bricks can be engraved within the walkways and are available for purchase to commemorate families and residents. Festival lights will be hung across the park to create a welcoming atmosphere for anyone who visits.

Natalie Weinstein, president of Celebrate St. James, said the collaboration of local government and volunteers may seem unusual but, by working together, the vision of economic revitalization is getting close.

“It has been a bumpy road, as progress usually is, but when all the bumps are gone  — as they soon will be — we can look back at this time and know we have done the right thing for our town, today and for its future,” she said.

Demolition of the Irish Viking bar began after the groundbreaking. According to Weinstein, the project should be completed by next spring.