Business Owners, Employees Pick Up the Pieces in Wake of Fire

SagTown Coffee Barista Adrian Stivala in the burned-out remains of the shop on Wednesday, January 11. Michael Heller photo
SagTown Coffee Barista Adrian Stivala in the burned-out remains of the shop on Wednesday, January 11. Michael Heller photo

By Stephen J. Kotz and Christine Sampson  

The RJD Gallery has already found a new space in Bridgehampton and is working toward a February opening. Compass real estate is standing pat, housing employees in other offices as it waits for its home in the Meridian Building to be rebuilt. The manager of the Henry Lehr women’s clothing store said she hopes to reopen by late March or early April.

Nearly a month after the December 16 fire that tore through the Sag Harbor Cinema and four other buildings on Main Street, business owners and their employees are coping with the cold, hard facts that the recovery process is going to take time, patience and money.

“Sag Harbor is great. That’s why I moved here,” said Richard Demato, the owner of the RJD Gallery, which was shoehorned into a small space next to the theater, and totally destroyed in the fire. Although Mr. Demato said he wanted to remain in Sag Harbor, he said “there is no space available that the village will allow to become an art gallery.”

Instead, he has signed a lease in a commercial space on Bridgehampton Main Street between Bobby Van’s and the Candy Kitchen. Contractors are already at work, and he hopes to be open by mid-February in time to hang a show commemorating Black History Month.

In the meantime, Mr. Demato, whose gallery lost 83 paintings valued at $1.2 million, said he has been kept busy haggling with Lloyd’s of London, his insurer. “The insurance company has been very difficult,” he said, adding that he was just about to get on a conference call to try to get a 20-percent advance so he could start to pay the artists whose work was destroyed.

“It’s been over three weeks and I haven’t seen anything,” he said. “If I were a regular business I’d be broke.”

“There really is no way to put a dollar value on it,” said John Gicking, the senior managing director of sales and co-manager of the Hamptons offices for Compass real estate, of his company’s potential losses from the fire.

The firm had temporarily closed the Sag Harbor office to remodel it and was planning to reopen on the Monday following the fire, he said. Although business files were backed up, some employees lost personal files that had been stored temporarily on the second floor of the building during the renovation.

He said Compass had found space in its other local offices for those employees who had been displaced and was committed to working with Jim McGinniss, the building’s owner, until he rebuilds. Having a Main Street presence is important, he said, so “we don’t feel it’s worthwhile to take a second floor office or rent on a side street” for the short term, he said.

Henry Lehr Manager Alexis Livingston outside her store on Main Street. Michael Heller photo

“We’re just waiting for the insurance company,” said Alexis Livingston, the manger of Henry Lehr, whose Main Street store remains closed, racks of clothing still in place. “Unfortunately all that clothing is not salvageable,” added Ms. Livingston, who said the building, which is owned by Gary Sanders, suffered extensive smoke and water damage when firefighters battled the blaze.

“Altogether, it’s a horrific situation for everyone,” she said, noting that the fire hit during the height of the Christmas shopping season. Fortunately, she said, Henry Lehr has transferred its staff to its Washington Street men’s store while it waits for the space to be remodeled.

Like others interviewed, she praised firefighters for their response in the frigid conditions the morning of the fire.

On Wednesday, New York State Assemblyman Fred W. Thiele Jr. forwarded a letter he had received from the New York State Department of Homeland Security and Emergency Services, saying that it was still processing claims from businesses that suffered losses from the fire and has been working with the federal Small Business Administration to determine if they will be eligible for any sort of assistance.

Sag Harbor Village Police Chief Austin McGuire said on Wednesday he had yet to receive formal reports from East Hampton Town Fire Marshal Tom Baker or the Suffolk County Arson Squad regarding the cause of the fire. He reiterated a statement made last week that it appears the cause — speculated early on to be from a cigarette ash or an electrical issue — may never be determined from conversations he has had with fire officials. “At this point, I am not expecting that to change,” he said.

Village Building Inspector Thomas Preiato said on Tuesday that he was still waiting for an engineering report on the status of the Brown Harris Stevens building, which was gutted by the fire. Mr. Preiato said he was concerned because the structure was built on stone footings, but would not speculate as to whether it could be saved or not.

The fire left SagTown Coffee manager Adrian Stivala unemployed in a region not known for its wealth of work options during the winter. He has filled out unemployment insurance paperwork and is waiting to find out if he will receive benefits. Complicating things is the question of when SagTown will reopen. Mr. Stivala said he hopes the crew will be back behind the counter steaming up lattes and brewing coffee by the summer. The shop’s owner, Shane Dyckman, was unavailable this week to comment.

A crowd-funding campaign has been set up on the website to help SagTown employees and a few others who worked at Collette Luxury Consignment. As of Wednesday afternoon, the campaign had raised about $6,600.

Tisha Collette, the consignment shop’s owner, and Mr. Dyckman “are most concerned about their employees, who have been working tirelessly by their sides to recover anything salvageable after the fire that consumed their businesses and others,” the campaign website reads. “Shane and Tish cannot continue to make payroll due to the loss of business and want to make sure their employees are paid for all their hard work, especially during the holiday season.”

Ms. Collette said Wednesday she has been assured the building will be repaired at the landlord’s expense, through the landlord’s insurance, but has received few other details about the progress toward repair.

Other businesses have relocated, but Marie Eiffel said this week she decided to break her lease and close her Sag Harbor store, which was located in the Cove. Her sole Sag Harbor employee is expecting a child, and she helped the employee get on unemployment. Ms. Eiffel said she will still operate her Shelter Island store this season, but she has already suffered financial losses.

“Not only am I sad about this disaster that touches so many souls, but I am in a big loss of business,” she said in an email. “In fashion, we all buy one year in advance. I have a huge inventory already bought for 2017, some already delivered. This huge amount of clothing was bought for two stores, the one on Shelter Island and the one in Sag Harbor. I can’t move this inventory in Shelter Island only.”

Ms. Eiffel said people may not realize the businesses in the Cove are in a particularly difficult situation.

“All was smoke-damaged and the smell in my shop made me cover my mouth and nose,” she said. “It does not look as bad as the ones that got burned down, but it is as bad, maybe even more difficult in the insurance sense. Because the store stands and can be open, [it] won’t cover a lot and won’t think we are that important…. So basically I am sad, upset, and wondering what to do next with that inventory already bought.”