Bay Street Theater Says It May Have No Choice But To Move Out Of Sag Harbor

Bay Street Theater officials say they are in talks with the Southampton United Artists Theater about a possible move from Sag Harbor. DANA SHAW

Officials of Bay Street Theater say they will be forced to move out of Sag Harbor if the village does not allow them to build a new theater on the Water Street Shops property next to John Steinbeck Waterfront Park.

Bay Street Executive Director Tracy Mitchell said on Monday that the theater is in talks to possibly buy the vacant Southampton United Artists Theater on Hill Street and is considering other options as well, including the Country Gardens Agway property in Bridgehampton. She said the talks were at the early stage, although the owners of the movie theater had offered it as a potential future home a year ago.

Ms. Mitchell said Bay Street officials are concerned that if current Trustee James Larocca is to defeat incumbent Mayor Kathleen Mulcahy in next month’s election, he may throw too many roadblocks in the path of what they expect to be a drawn-out review process, forcing their hand.

“I really want to emphasize we do not want to leave — that’s the bottom line,” she said. “With that being said, there is a potential mayoral candidate who, without us even presenting anything to a planning board, is saying ‘I’m going to stop whatever they want to do.’”

Mr. Larocca has long argued that Bay Street should not be allowed to build at the Water Street Shops property, which Friends of Bay Street, an independent nonprofit organization, purchased last fall for $13.1 million. Initially, he proposed that Bay Street build on the former National Grid gas ball property on Bridge Street, which is currently a village parking lot and for which Friends of Bay Street recently won a long-term lease.

More recently, after it was learned National Grid would not allow construction on the gas ball property because it is a remediated Superfund site, Mr. Larocca suggested that the former Dodds & Eder building at 11 Bridge Street, which recently was acquired separately by Friends of Bay Street Chairman Adam Potter, would make a better home for the theater.

Bay Street officials have repeatedly said they want to build on the site of the former 7-Eleven.

“There is no other property that we can build on in Sag Harbor. Period. End of story,” Ms. Mitchell said.

But in an advertisement for his mayoral campaign in last week’s Sag Harbor Express titled “We Can Dream, Can’t We?” Mr. Larocca proposed that both Water Street Shops and 2 Main Street be razed so Steinbeck Park can be enlarged. To help bring that about, he stated he would meet with theater representatives to “share my view that it will be impossible for Bay Street to build what it wants on the waterfront.”

He said he would ask Friends of Bay Street to sell Water Street Shops to the Southampton Community Preservation Fund for the same price it paid and that a separate, for-profit entity created to purchase the 2 Main Street property, but yet to do so, follow through on a promise to sell that property at a loss, if necessary, to the town CPF.

The town has already contributed $10 million in CPF money for the existing park. Asking it to pay another $13.1 million for Water Street Shops and a similar amount for 2 Main Street would not have much chance of success, according to Southampton Town Supervisor Jay Schneiderman.

“We have already spent a lot in that area,” he said. “I won’t say we wouldn’t contribute, but it would have to be a great deal.”

If Bay Street were to decamp to Southampton, it would be welcomed with open arms, according to Mayor Jesse Warren.

“Nobody has approached me about it,” he said, “but if Bay Street did want to come to Southampton, the village would help in any way it could.”

Conversely, Gavin Menu, the co-publisher of The Express News Group and president of the Sag Harbor Chamber of Commerce, said the Chamber wants Bay Street to stay in the village.

“Bay Street has been such an important part of Sag Harbor and a real driver of business in terms of bringing people to the village to shop and dine either before or after a show,” he said. “I think I can speak for the entire Chamber membership when I say I hope they can find a way to remain in Sag Harbor for many years to come.”

Additionally this week, a coalition of Sag Harbor business owners and local organizations announced the creation of “Merchants for Bay Street Theater,” citing the considerable economic benefits the 30-year-old cultural center has brought to the business district at a time when the theater is seeking to build a new home in the village.

“This grass-roots organization is being formed because we are deeply concerned that the proposal for the theater to build a permanent home here in Sag Harbor has become hostage to politics and the upcoming village election,” Lisa Field, owner of Sag Harbor Variety Store, said in release sent out on Tuesday announcing the formation of the group. “We know Bay Street has other options with other communities now offering incentives and property. Losing the theater by showing them the door would be devastating to Sag Harbor’s merchants.”

Members of the new group include The Wharf Shop, In Home, The Sag Harbor Variety Store, The Beacon Restaurant, Sylvester & Co., Sen Restaurant, Dockside Restaurant, Sean Edison Salon, Jack’s Coffee, The Harbor Shop, Shirley’s Mind and Body, The Little Red Planet, and Water Street Wines and Spirits.

Mayor Kathleen Mulcahy said she did not see it as her responsibility to convince the theater to stay in Sag Harbor, adding that the announcement made it sound “like they didn’t get their way and are picking up their ball and going home.”

“I’m really sad it has come to this — that they feel this way,” the mayor said. “As I’ve always said, I’ve felt losing Bay Street would be a big issue for us both from an economic and a cultural standpoint.”

Instead, she said, it was her job to help the village have a code that would protect it from overdevelopment, and if Bay Street’s plans meet that code, it should be allowed to build a new facility.

Stephen Hamilton, who helped found Bay Street 30 years ago, and now serves as the theater’s external director, echoed Ms. Mitchell’s comments about Bay Street’s desire to remain in the village, adding that the theater felt more threatened than threatening. He said the theater has leased space since its founding 30 years ago in the waterfront complex owned by Patrick Malloy. That property will eventually be sold, and Bay Street, which has already outgrown the space, could be shown the door, he said.

“I believe this is really an existential issue, a life and death issue, for Bay Street,” he said, adding that it was unfortunate that Mr. Larocca had made the theater the focus of his campaign.

For his part, Mr. Larocca said he too wanted to see Bay Street remain in the village. The problem, he said, is that Bay Street is fixated on “the Sydney Opera House syndrome” and pressing a plan that would overwhelm the site. Both Ms. Mitchell and Mr. Hamilton said the initial renderings revealed earlier this year were a first draft, designed to make a splash and would most certainly be scaled back.

“I still think we could make a deal. We could get the park and they could get Bridge Street,” Mr. Larocca said. “Instead, we get this flirtation with ‘We are going to have to go somewhere else.’ They are an important part of the village, but they are not the be-all, end-all they think they are.”

Ms. Mitchell said the theater was only trying to guarantee its future, and as Bay Street’s executive director, she had to plan for contingencies. “Plan A is to stay in Sag Harbor,” she said, “but when one runs any business, one has to be continually looking down the road.”