Representatives of Bay Street Theater, who have found themselves the target of an increasingly skeptical, and at times hostile, public, sought to press the reset button at a forum on Saturday at which they discussed their plans for a permanent home, addressed questions about rumored property deals, and pledged to be more transparent moving forward.
“I want to start by apologizing for getting out ahead of ourselves and for not getting the dialogue started in the right way, so today we are here to remedy that,” said Tracy Mitchell, Bay Street’s executive director. While some speakers thanked the theater for its effort to become more forthcoming, it was clear many others remained concerned about its plans.
The two-hour forum in the theater’s current home on Bay Street and Long Wharf marked the first time it had been open to the public in 410 days, even if it was for a sparse, socially distanced crowd. The event was also streamed online.
Ms. Mitchell’s apologetic tone was echoed by Adam Potter, the chairman of Friends of Bay Street, who tried to put to rest rumors that his organization, or groups allied with it, had been making offers on just about every piece of commercially zoned real estate in the heart of the village.
“What else are we purchasing?” he said, before asking those in the audience to “take out your pencils, take out your pens and listen very carefully: nothing.”
Besides the purchase of the Water Street Shops building, which was announced in October 2020, Friends of Bay Street have not acquired any other property except for a 99-year lease on the National Grid gas ball parking lot, Mr. Potter said. He added he was “focused” on working out an arrangement that would allow that lot to continue to be available for public parking.
“Friends of Bay Street is not purchasing any additional buildings, any additional space. We are not in contract, we are not looking for it, we are not leasing, period,” he said, rejecting rumors that buildings ranging from the Sag Harbor Launderette to The American Hotel had been targeted.
However, he quickly pivoted, acknowledging that he had personally purchased at least two houses on Rose Street in addition to the Dodds & Eder building at 11 Bridge Street, which he announced earlier this year. He said a new, for-profit company he is not invested in, 2 Main Street LLC, had been formed to try to buy the building known as Fort Apache, so it could be razed and the property sold back to the Southampton Town Community Preservation Fund and added to John Steinbeck Waterfront Park.
But Mr. Potter, despite several direct requests from members of the audience, refused to name any of the donors who are bankrolling the multimillion-dollar development plans.
“Who are the donors for Friends of Bay Street and your LLC, and are you going to create any more LLCs to buy more properties in our village for your grand design?” asked Kathryn Levy. “Who are the donors? Because you must know there are some pretty frightening rumors.”
Mr. Potter sidestepped the question, saying that Friends of Bay Street had “hundreds of donors,” many of whom preferred to remain anonymous and some of whom were in the theater that afternoon. He added, though, that names would be released when tax documents are filed by the end of the year.
“To help our community build some trust in this process, I ask your donors to come forward,” rejoined Ms. Levy, as a voice from the audience called out for Bay Street to at least provide the names of at least the top 10 among them.
Later, Duncan Darrow, a Sag Harbor attorney and founder of the nonprofit Fighting Chance, also urged Bay Street to identify its backers. “You simply have to give these people three names on your top-10 donor list,” he told Mr. Potter. “You simply have to do it before you walk out of here because there is a trust deficit right now, and people are really wondering who these folks are.”
In introducing himself, Mr. Potter took pains to convince the audience his intentions were good.
He said he had sold his insurance-related businesses and retired early before getting involved with Bay Street. Mr. Potter said he volunteered to help the theater, which has been in rented space since its founding in 1991, find a permanent home in the village.
The process grew complicated, he said, when Friends of Bay Street decided to buy Water Street Shops, and committed itself to helping the 11 tenants in the complex find new homes. He said he soon learned there was no commercial space available in the village for lease, so he decided to buy property himself. “I decided I personally am going to step up to the table,” he said. “I’m not a billionaire. I don’t have billionaires behind me.”
He said he bought the buildings on Bridge and Rose streets to provide opportunities for displaced businesses, provide space for other, desirable small businesses, such as a dry cleaners or shoe repair shop, provide workforce housing, and work with the village to get the buildings in that low-lying area connected to the village sewage treatment plant, thus helping to eliminate “an environmental mess.”
He said he had helped three tenants find new homes — two of them in one of his buildings on Rose Street and the other upisland — and that transition plans were being formulated for five others.
“If you want to talk about transparency and trust, I didn’t have to admit that I owned any of these buildings,” he said. “I’m sorry if I’m philanthropic. Fault me for that.”
Many, including members of the Village Board, had concerns about the opaqueness of Bay Street’s plans as well as some of the assumptions that were being made.
Trustee James Larocca took issue with Ms. Mitchell’s suggestion that if Friends of Bay Street had not bought the Water Street Shops building, the village would be facing the likelihood of a row of condos in its place, saying the village had received assurances that it could receive money from the Southampton Town CPF to cover at least half the appraised value of the Water Street Shops building so it could be added to Steinbeck Park, a process he said was alive when Friends of Bay Street stepped in bought the property.
Mr. Larocca, who said he has been in regular contact with Mr. Potter, renewed his call for the theater to be built on the National Grid lot, so the Water Street shops property could be torn down and the park expanded.
“If you take your plans up Bridge Street, I’ll be your best friend in government,” Mr. Larocca said. “The theater does not need for any of its essential functions to be on the most precious waterfront on the East End.”
In response, Mr. Potter said the gas ball property, a former Super Fund site, has been taken off the table. “National Grid, in our lease, will not allow a building on that land. Period. End of conversation,” he said.
And he dismissed suggestions that Friends of Bay Street bought Water Street Shops out from under the village, arguing its owners would not settle for the $12 million the village had proposed for it.
Mayor Kathleen Mulcahy asked Mr. Potter to explain the role the 2 Main Street building played in its overall plan. “What happens when CPF says ‘no?’” she asked of the suggestion that the building would be torn down and the land sold to the town to be added to the park. “What happens if you don’t get the price you want?” She also inquired if that property was already being included in design calculations for the theater complex.
“We are committed to hopefully getting this done for the park and for the village,” Mr. Potter said of the 2 Main Street property purchase and sale to the town’s CPF. But he added that Bay Street would not be able to answer in detail questions about its overall design process until the village completes an ongoing review of its waterfront and provides new zoning code guidelines.
Ms. Levy, and April Gornik, who played a major role in buying and reopening the Sag Harbor Cinema as a nonprofit movie house, both said they were uneasy that Friends of Bay Street was established as a separate nonprofit from the theater itself.
Typically, Ms. Levy said, an established institution like Bay Street would simply create a capital fund, collect donations, and buy the property and build the facility it wants, all the while maintaining control.
“I was very puzzled that it was necessary to form a new group in order to buy the property,” added Ms. Gornik. The Sag Harbor Partnership, which provided the initial backing for the cinema, created a second organization, the Sag Harbor Cinema Arts Center, to establish the new cinema arts center because the partnership was not established to run such an operation, she said.
Mr. Potter said a similar process was planned for Bay Street. “As soon as that theater is done, we want to turn it over to Bay Street,” Mr. Potter said. “Just like the Sag Harbor Partnership, we don’t want to run a theater.”
There were other reasons Bay Street allowed the creation of Friends of Bay Street, Ms. Mitchell added. She said the theater’s board did not want the headache or liability of trying to buy a building and shepherding it through the planning process, all during a pandemic. “We have enough on our plate,” she said.
Scott Schwartz, Bay Street’s artistic director, who also took part in the forum, said those who questioned how Bay Street has approached the project, should keep in mind that there was more than one business model to follow. “We appreciate your opinion, but we did something different,” he said. “And you know, it’s working.”
Several other speakers, including architect Maziar Behrooz, questioned the size and scale of the proposed design. He said he appreciated the heartfelt statements of Bay Street representatives about their love of the theater and the village, “What I’m puzzled by is how the product that you showed previously with this building is disconnected with everything you said today,” he said. “It seems like you searched for an architect to design a project that would negate almost everything you said.
Mr. Potter said he did not want to argue about architecture and offered to set up a meeting with Mr. Behrooz and representatives of William Ferris + Partners, the firm hired to design the theater. Mr. Behrooz said he would gladly take a red pen to the designs. “Look at Sag Harbor and redo your project,” he said. “This one should be discarded completely.”
Village resident Bob Weinstein also urged Bay Street to think smaller, saying a large building capable of putting on major productions would not be right for the village. “If that is your dream” he said, “maybe it’s the wrong dream for Sag Harbor.”
Saying that scale is a major part of the village’s character, he added, “I bet if you took what you designed, put it on a Xerox machine and reduced it by 50 percent, you’d have a lot more open minds in this audience than you currently have.”
Some praised Bay Street’s plans. Ken Dorph said he loved the thought of a large community-focused space on the waterfront. “When I saw the plans, the first thing I thought was, what an opportunity,” he said, while encouraging Bay Street to continue its efforts to be more transparent.
Robert Remkus, whose family formerly owned much of the property being proposed for the theater, said he liked the proposed design, saying it would soften what would otherwise be allowed to be built there. “We say we don’t want change, but Sag Harbor has always changed,” he said, urging people to not dig in their heels against the theater.
That also was the message of Stephen Hamilton, Bay Street’s director of external affairs, who called for a cooperative approach. “Let’s start working together because how sad it would be at the end of the day if this didn’t work because we just didn’t try enough to make it work.”