Looking Back at Sag Harbor Business Community’s Recovery, One Year After Cinema Fire

Henry Lehr and Brown Harris Stevens are two businesses who were heavily affected by the December 16, 2016, fire. Henry Lehr has since reopened; BHS is still operating at a temporary office down the road. Christine Sampson photo
Henry Lehr and Brown Harris Stevens are two businesses who were heavily affected by the December 16, 2016, fire. Henry Lehr has since reopened; BHS is still operating at a temporary office down the road. Christine Sampson photo

By Christine Sampson

The story of how a village rallied around its business community following a devastating fire is filled with determination and collaboration, highs and lows and continued recovery.

While a handful of businesses, such as Collette Consignment, Marie Eiffel and RJD Gallery, said following the December 16, 2016 Main Street, Sag Harbor fire that they could not reopen their businesses, still others rebuilt their spaces.

For the Main Street location of the clothing store Henry Lehr, which was closed for about four-and-a-half months after the fire, traffic has been great ever since it reopened April 1.

“It’s better for the community to have all the stores filled,” said store manager Alexis Livingston, a Sag Harbor resident herself. “The village was super. The village knows you’re locals and wants to support you. It’s your livelihood. I think it will be okay.”

Sag Harbor Chamber of Commerce president Lisa Field, who owns the Sag Harbor Variety Store, called the businesses that have returned to Main Street “an inspiration.”

“All the businesses which were either destroyed of hurt in the fire have been very resilient,” she said in an email. “We appreciate their efforts to rebuild and come back. I think the inspiration comes from their dedication to being a part of Sag Harbor’s community by living and working here.”

Tim McGuire, chairman of the Sag Harbor Zoning Board of Appeals, said he hasn’t had the sense that the village has hindered progress.

“There has just been the series of normal questions,” he said Wednesday. “There’s the sense that the village would like to see it all rebuilt and reopened as quickly as it could be, and I have not sensed in my observations that any of the boards have been restrictive.”

During the recovery process, Ms. Field said the cleanup process beginning immediately was “very encouraging,” and said the HarborFrost festival was something of a turning point.

“Last year’s HarborFrost helped to let everyone know we are all still here and going strong,” she said. “The celebration of the firefighters topped by the fireworks celebrated who we are as a village.”

Matta, a clothing store on Main Street, reopened in July. Its grand reopening featured an art installation by a local artist who took the remains of the fabric left over in the store after the fire and created works in textile media.

“While the fire tested our resolve, we felt dedicated and passionate about reopening,” Christina Gitti, Matta’s founder and creative director, said. “As soon as we learned that reopening was a possibility given the extensive damage, we worked diligently and were adrenalized to make it happen. In retrospect, I am very proud and amazed that we were able to open for the summer season. Our passion and commitment carried us.”

Brian DeSesa, an attorney who represents SagTown Coffee owner Shane Dyckman, on Wednesday called the road to full recovery at SagTown “long and difficult.” The coffee shop has been issued 37 tickets since it reopened this summer due to a conflict with the village over alleged violations of its certificate of occupancy.

“Obviously, he’s happy to be reopened, and they’re happy that they employ a lot of local people, so the local people have their jobs back and happy people have their coffee again,” Mr. DeSesa said.

John Gicking, senior managing director of Compass Real Estate, which was displaced entirely, said the firm’s agents “are strong and powered through the disruption.”

“All of them have carried on their business despite the loss of the office, and on the whole have significantly increased their business this year versus last year,” he said. “…Frankly, had we known the process would take 18 months rather than the expected 12 months, perhaps we would have taken on space locally, but that decision is behind us.”

Robert M. Nelson, senior managing director of Brown Harris Stevens Real Estate, which did take on a temporary local office space at the Gingerbread House on Main Street with approval of the ZBA, said the firm has had “some difficulty with customers knowing where we are.”

“We are ever so hopeful to be back in our old space as soon as possible,” he said. “As you know, a business is dependent on the customers knowing where to find you.”

Depending on whom you ask, business is either strong or struggling right now on Main Street, and last December’s fire is only one part of the story. Parking troubles and the quick-turnaround boom of Airbnb rentals seem to have impacted some retail stores more than the hole left by the fire that destroyed most of the cinema and damaged many surrounding buildings, according to some business owners. Increases in car and foot traffic have not necessarily translated to more dollars for businesses, Ms. Field said.

“Many agree that the increase in Airbnb short-term rentals has contributed to a more transient clientele,” she said. “We always hear that there is no parking available in the village during the summer months, and unfortunately, many of our local customers avoid the village during that time.”

She later continued, “The general tone of the businesses on Main Street has been that the loss of the cinema itself did not really affect commerce as it had been a low impact usage for years. Of course, the eyesore of the burnt out and missing buildings is undesirable. I’m not sure Sag Harbor can ‘fully recover,’ as things constantly change and so much of that is out of our control.”

Seena Stromberg, owner of the retail store Out of the Closet, seemed to agree.

“Airbnb has killed the shopping in this town,” she said. “Nobody has been doing anything about it, and it’s a shame. They don’t come here to shop anymore. This happened before the movie theater fire, and the fire was even more devastating.”

While the cinema fire was a blow to Main Street, Ms. Field said, “For those of us living here, owning businesses, and continuing to run our stores, the heart of our village was not the cinema, but rather, all the people and businesses who are here every day working to keep our village the special place it is.”