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Incubator

The Briarcliff building at 18 Tower Hill Road in Shoreham, was formerly the Briarcliff Elementary School until it closed in 2014. File photo by Kevin Redding

By Kevin Redding

Some residents see it as a magical place full of rich history and memories that deserves preservation, others consider it a tax burden that should be sold and disposed of. The future of Briarcliff Elementary School, a shuttered, early-20th century building on Tower Hill Road in Shoreham, is currently up in the air as the school district looks to community members to weigh in on potential options.

A dozen voices were heard Jan. 9 during a public forum held by Shoreham-Wading River’s board of education to decide the fate of the beloved historic school, which has sat vacant for the last three years. The nearly 27,000-square-foot manor was built in 1907, expanded on through 2007 and closed permanently in 2014 as part of the district’s restructuring plan.

David Madigan, a Tesla Science Center board member and a former Briarcliff student, pleads his case to the board as to why it should preserve the school building. Photo by Kevin Redding

Administrators made it clear during the meeting that the board has no plans for the property at this time and, due to declining enrollment throughout the district, does not foresee it will be used for instructional use anytime soon — be it a pre-K or BOCES program. Board members said it will determine the best course of action for the building based on input from the community in the coming months.

“The board will not be making any decisions tonight on the future of the Briarcliff elementary school building, we’re only listening to residential statements,” said board president Robert Rose. “We recognize the importance of input from the entire community.”

This year, the annual operating costs for the property are estimated to total $95,000, which are expensed through the district’s general fund and includes building and equipment maintenance; insurance; and utilities, according to Glen Arcuri, assistant superintendent for finances and operations.

A presentation of the pricey upkeep didn’t dissuade several residents from speaking passionately about the school’s place in the history of Shoreham, pleading with the board to neither sell nor redevelop it for condominiums, as one speaker suggested.

“It was such a wonderful place — the children loved the building,” said Bob Korchma, who taught at Briarcliff for a number of years. “To lose such a great part of our community for housing and any other endeavors would be crazy. It has such history and working there was one of the best parts of my life.”

Debbie Lutjen, a physical education teacher at the school for 10 years, echoed the sentiments, calling the building “special,” and encouraged the board to move the two-floor North Shore Public Library that is currently attached to the high school to Briarcliff.

“If we sell, it’s a one-time influx of cash and we’re never going to get it back again. I think we should work together to keep it as an asset for Shoreham-Wading River.”

—Colette Grosso

“The majority of my teaching career in the district was at the high school, and when they put the public library there, I believe it created several security problems where the general public was on school grounds during the school day,” Lutjen said, suggesting that the freed up space at the high school could be used for classrooms, a larger cafeteria, a fitness center and testing rooms.

Residents also pushed the idea to designate the building a historic landmark and pursue grants, potentially from U.S. Rep. Lee Zeldin (R-Shirley), to restore it. David Kuck, whose son went to Briarcliff, said on top of making it a historic site, the district should turn it into a STEM center for students across Suffolk County, as it stands in the shadow of inventor Nikola Tesla’s famous Wardenclyffe Tower.

David Madigan, a Tesla Science Center board member and a former Briarcliff student, outlined the building’s history for the board — three generations of the prominent Upham family, including a veteran of the Civil War, built and owned the school in three different phases — and urged that covenants be filed on the property that says the building could never be taken down.

“The exterior must be kept in its historic state,” Madigan said. “It’s a very valuable and historical asset for our village. And it’s the most important thing to preserve as a resident.”

Joan Jacobs, a Shoreham resident for 40 years and former teacher, explained to the board how the building was the model for the mansion in the “Madeline” children’s books by Ludwig Bemelmans, who worked at a tavern on Woodville Road.

Joan Jacobs gets emotional talking about her connection and history with Shoreham’s Briarcliff Elementary School. Photo by Kevin Redding

“It’s so rich and having taught there for 14 years, having a daughter go through there, there’s an awful lot there,” an emotional Jacobs said. “It’s a shame to throw away our history.”

Both Bob Sweet and Barbara Cohen, members of Shoreham Village, advocated that the school be redeveloped as a residence for seniors in the area.

“I care about this building and sorely miss when the school buses coming up the road to drop the grade schoolers off,” Sweet said. “I admonish you don’t sell the property and explore the notion of turning this into condos for retired village members.”

But Colette Grosso, a special education aide at Miller Avenue School, said she hopes the community works toward a solution where the building remains an asset within the district for educational purposes as opposed to housing.

“All-day daycare and aftercare services could be done there, and there are other organizations besides BOCES that would love to use the facility to serve special education, which is an underserved population,” Grosso said. “If we sell, it’s a one-time influx of cash and we’re never going to get it back again. I think we should work together to keep it as an asset for Shoreham-Wading River.”

Further discussions with community members on Briarcliff will occur at the next board of education meeting Feb. 13 in the high school auditorium at 7 p.m.

The donation made by Eugene Sayan will help with plans to renovate the Tesla Science Center at Wardenclyffe in Shoreham. Image from Marc Alessi

The Tesla Science Center at Wardenclyffe aims to be a major hub of exploration and innovation on Long Island, not only preserving Nikola Tesla’s legacy but actively helping to inspire the inventors of tomorrow. It is now another step closer to that thanks to the generosity of a local entrepreneur greatly inspired by the Serbian-American scientist.

During a celebration of the nonprofit’s long-term vision for its Shoreham site last month at the The Ward Melville Heritage Organization Educational & Cultural Center in Stony Brook, it was announced that
Eugene Sayan — the founder and CEO of Stony Brook-based health care efficiency company Softheon Inc., will donate $1 million in support of the future museum, business incubator for scientific research and student-geared education facility.

Eugene Sayan, CEO of Stony Brook-based Softheon Inc. made a $1 million donation to the Tesla Science Center at Wardenclyffe in Shoreham. Photo from LinkedIn

With the donation, the center currently has $5 million of a $20 million capital campaign goal set up in March of this year. The funding will allow the center to begin phase one of its construction projects on the grounds of Tesla’s last remaining laboratory. The starting plan is to turn two abandoned buildings on the property into visitor and exhibition spaces for science education programs by next year, and renovate the historic, Stanford White-designed laboratory. Maintenance of the buildings and staff is also part of the overall budget.

“It’s truly amazing,” said Marc Alessi, the science center’s executive director, a driving force behind the center’s plans. “There’s certainly worldwide interest in this place, but Eugene’s donation is validation that there’s also an interest from local innovators in making sure this gets launched.”

Sayan, an Eastern European immigrant himself whose innovative company “strives to create simple solutions to complex problems,” has, unsurprisingly, always felt a strong connection to Tesla and looked to him as a source of inspiration while building his business. When he was made aware of Wardenclyffe during a meeting with the center’s national chair of fundraising Joe Campolo and learned of the plan to build something more than just a museum in Tesla’s name, he quickly involved himself in the effort. In the wake of Tesla Motors CEO Elon Musk’s $1 million donation to the center in 2014, Sayan wanted to be the first entrepreneur in the local area to make a significant contribution, while inspiring others to follow his lead.

“It’s an honor to support the Tesla Science Center and its celebration of the important work of Nikola Tesla,”
Sayan said in a statement. “His work and innovation have made an impact on my life, and I’m very happy that Softheon is supporting such an important initiative on Long Island.”

“Having a capability as a science center helps with sustainability. People will keep coming back for family memberships, our new exhibits, to send their kids to robotics and coding classes.”

— Marc Alessi

Tesla Science Center President Jane Alcorn said Sayan’s benefaction, and others like it, will serve to successfully energize the legacy and impact of the inventor of alternating current electricity.

“Mr. Sayan is giving us support when we need it most,” Alcorn said. “We hope others will see the good that this can bring and consider giving a gift of this nature as well. Not everybody has the capacity to do something like this but when people who do have that ability act in a forward-thinking way like this, it benefits all of us. This contribution will make a real difference.”

The center’s board members estimate the entirety of their planned facility will be available to the public by 2022. Upon completion of the project, they said, not only will it include a museum and an immersive science center — including a STEM education program for students, TED Talk-style lectures and workshops for emerging scientists and entrepreneurs and traveling exhibits — it will house a Makerspace program offering lab rooms and classes in areas ranging from 3-D printing to synthetic fabrication and robotics. Incubator programs will also be set up to connect startup businesses from around the world to the site. If a company meets the center’s criteria, with Tesla-oriented focuses like electrical or mechanical engineering, its owners can apply for crowdsourcing and mentorships.

Plans are also in place to work with the Department of Education to implement Tesla into the K-12 science
curriculums of surrounding school districts.

Tesla Science Center Executive Director Marc Alessi at the current Tesla Science Center at Wardenclyffe in Shoreham. Photo by Kevin Redding

Alessi added that because the closest major regional science center, the Cradle of Aviation in Garden City, is a hike for North Shore residents, he hopes the science center will provide a similar experience for them.

“Having a capability as a science center helps with sustainability,” he said. “People will keep coming back for family memberships, our new exhibits, to send their kids to robotics and coding classes. We eventually want to be the go-to source.”

He said it’s important the center become a place that would make its namesake proud.

“If Nikola Tesla walked onto this site after it’s opened and all we had was a museum dedicated to what he was doing 100 years ago, he would be ticked off,” Alessi said. “Just having a static museum here isn’t enough. On-site innovation really honors what Tesla was doing. [Tesla] was a futurist, he saw where things would go, and that’s what can inspire the Teslas of today and tomorrow. If you bring an 8-year-old child here who gets hands-on science experience, we’re going to inspire a future scientist. We want to help people see the value of science.”

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Business owners mingle at the incubator showcase last Thursday morning inside one of the research centers at Stony Brook University. Photo by Phil Corso

Stony Brook University graduate Frank Zinghini originally started his software vulnerability management company Code Dx out of Northport, but he has since setup shop in a more “incubated” environment, thanks to the university’s office of economic development.

Now, he and his team don’t even need to pick up a phone to chat with like-minded entrepreneurs — all they need to do is poke their heads next door.

“We need engineering help, and we’re looking to the university for that,” said Brianne O’Brien, director of sales and training at Code Dx. “It’s amazing the amount of attention we have here.”

Code Dx was one of nearly 40 booths cascaded throughout the second floor of the campus’s Center of Excellence in Wireless and Information Technology building on Thursday, as its office of economic development flexed its muscles at an incubator showcase. Businesses did a lot of sharing throughout the day — of their stories, but also of mentorship, advice, expertise and more.

Yacov Shamash, vice president for economic development at the university, said the goal was to link the academic and research resources of the campus with the greater economic needs of Long Island and New York State. Much like a mother bird sitting over her egg before it hatches, the university has been “incubating” businesses in various centers across the island with an eye on tomorrow.

Many of those businesses that blossom underneath the incubator umbrella explore various facets of science and technology and end up employing Stony Brook University grads and other North Shore natives before branching out, the vice president said.

“It is a wonderful opportunity for learning and hiring,” he said. “It’s a positive thing for Long Island — no question.”

Ann-Marie Scheidt, director of economic development at the university, said last Thursday was the university’s first incubator showcase, showing off just what kinds of innovation occurred on a daily basis there and just how diverse it could be. It is that diversity that she said was essential when confronting the region’s problems of tomorrow.

“As they grow up, we provide them with the help they need. But they also become connected with other local groups doing business around them,” Shamash said in an interview. “Our goal is to embed them in the Long Island community and to create great jobs.”

One of the incubated companies took the spotlight that afternoon as a “graduate” of the university’s business incubator program. Codagenix Inc. spent the past three years “incubating” at the campus and has grown to a point where they were able to move to a larger space in Melville, and North Shore lawmakers made sure they were there to send them off.

Yi-Xian Qin of QB Sonic Inc. smiled from ear-to-ear as he shared the medical advancements of his incubated business, which was working to develop a noninvasive ultrasound simulator to address common injuries like hip fractures. He said it was the incubation that actually helped his company thrive at such an early stage in its first year.

“The incubator is flexible,” he said. “You can be a huge company or occupy a small office. Either way, it lets you meet with other companies. It’s very good for the other start-ups.”