By Danny Schrafel
A year ago this November, the former home of the South Huntington Public Library, at the corner of Depot Road and North Melville Road in Huntington Station, lay fallow – a vacant property owned by the South Huntington School District.
On Saturday, it was a hub of patriotism, art, music and dance as the Spirit of Huntington Art Center hosted a celebration to dedicate a mural of George Washington’s 1790 visit to Huntington, which now hangs on the former library’s exterior wall.
It’s all thanks to a public-private partnership between the art center, South Huntington School District leaders and several carefully chosen businesses that have now set up shop in portions of the 24,000 square-foot building.
South Huntington Superintendent Dave Bennardo said public-private partnerships are the wave of the future, especially as municipalities grapple with an unforgiving state tax levy cap.
“What happens is you need more creative partnerships,” Bennardo said. “You want to build services… but you also know there’s a limit to how much you can keep going back to the taxpayer. These partnerships enable you to grow your programs without burdening homeowners, and it’s the way to go.”
School districts and local government alike are getting in on the public-private partnership act in growing numbers. Huntington and South Huntington schools have worked closely with Huntington Station-based TEQ, a professional development and technology firm that has been a key partner in launching the Jack Abrams and Silas Wood STEM programs.
The Harborfields School District also recently opened the door for direct support of extracurricular activities by businesses by reviving a banner program, which allows businesses and families to sponsor a banner for a specific organization that will receive the lion’s share of the donation. A smaller portion is earmarked for a general activities fund.
And one of the Town of Huntington’s largest initiatives – brick-and-mortar revitalization of Huntington Station – is powered by a partnership with for-profit developers Renaissance Downtowns.
In the case of the former library, the building had been empty since Huntington Fine Arts picked up and moved to Greenlawn. Assemblyman Chad Lupinacci, a former member of the South Huntington school board, said the board considered selling the building, but decided against it – a “wise choice,” he said Saturday.
The arrangement has also allowed the Spirit of Huntington Art Center to grow after moving in last November.
The move came after its former home, a converted gas station at the corner of 25A and Park Avenue in Huntington village, became unavailable. At that station, the work of founder Erich Preis began when he started painting on the building a mural honoring the late Len Totora Jr., a Korean War veteran and owner of L&L Camera in the village. He followed with a second work commemorating George Washington’s 1790 visit to Platt’s Tavern, setting the stage for an art center to grow from within.
All of Preis’ work is dedicated to the memory of his college roommate, Michael Noeth, who “taught me everything I know about art.” He was killed at the Pentagon during the Sept. 11, 2001 terrorist attacks. Preis’ subsequent work to support homeless veterans with the late Len Totora Jr. and his efforts at the Spirit of Huntington Art Center, which includes services for special-needs children and adults, has been done in Noeth’s honor.
When Pries first recommended the library property to New Media CEO Michael Kitakis, also active in the Spirit of Huntington center, he thought the building was unattainable. But rather than ask Spirit of Huntington for money, Bennardo and the district allows the center to pay through in-kind extracurricular services. After starting with middle-school students, Spirit of Huntington is offering a high-school portfolio program, providing South Huntington students the guidance they need as they develop art portfolios in traditional and digital media alike.
“What’s so unique is no one’s ever worked so closely from a school district with businesses in the community to offer assistance, training and support,” Pries said.
Other for-profit entities, such as Kitakis’ New Media firm, SAT tutors Dream Tree Academy and Video Design Software, producers of television news ticker software, pay rent to the district, but also contribute by offering internships and tutoring services.
And that, Bennardo said, is what the partnership is all about.
“It’s one thing getting rent. It’s another thing staying in the educational mold and building these community friendships,” the superintendent said.