Q&A: Dr. Josephine DeVincenzi On The Proposal By STAR For A New Pool Facility In Tuckahoe

Dr. Josephine DeVincenzi of Sag Harbor, at her winter home in Naples, Florida.

The Southampton Town Board cast a key vote this week that could make a property in Tuckahoe, not far from County Road 39, a potential site for a new 26,000-square-foot “aquacenter” with a pair of public pools and a fitness center.

The project remains a decades-long dream — and the organization planning the project, Southampton Town Aquatics & Recreation Inc., or STAR, must raise nearly $20 million to make it a reality. But Dr. Josephine DeVincenzi, a resident of Sag Harbor and Naples, Florida, and a former principal in the Southampton School District, says Tuesday’s vote could open up deep pockets in support of the plan.

Dr. DeVincenzi, president of STAR, discussed the project via Zoom from her home in Naples, Florida.

Q: You’ve spoken before about the fact that this pool project has a personal importance to you, and it comes from something in your experience. Can you talk about that a little bit?

Yes, I can. I became principal of Southampton High School in 1986. That fall, a young boy had drowned. I never knew him. But the impact of that drowning was still evident when I arrived in February.

… Then, I think it was year or two after I was in the position, a young athlete — he was a freshman, he was a football player and a really wiry, strong but slender, all muscle and bone and no excess weight — went out fishing with his uncle in a small boat. I don’t know if it was Big Fresh Pond, but it was in one of the freshwater areas.

The boat overturned, and the uncle grabbed his two young children, assuming that [the teenager] could swim. He went down like a rock. He was unable, panicked and didn’t know how to swim. He couldn’t go basically 10 feet to get to the edge of the boat and hold on until somebody came to rescue them.

… In my years as principal of the high school, we lost about a dozen kids, which is mind-boggling, because it’s not something you get prepared for when you’re learning to organize and run a school. They don’t tell you about that.

… In dealing with the aftermath of this young boy’s death, I heard kids speak about … the fear that they held every time they went to someone’s home and they had a pool. They were fearful that someone was going to push them in the pool, in the deep end, and they couldn’t swim.

… It just struck me so deeply. I was, shortly thereafter, talking about this, and I get a call from Jean Hazelton, who’s a lawyer in town, and it was Jean who was the president of this board that she began, and she invited me. When I made that commitment, which was in the late 1980s — the nonprofit was formed by Jean in 1989 — I vowed then that I was going to stay in this until the job got done.

Q: There had been talk about a pool at the high school at one time, correct?

The original high school discussion about the pool, that was in the late 1960s. The high school opened in 1972. In the late 1960s, the original plan for the high school included a pool. There are actually people — I clearly wasn’t around, I was just graduating from high school that year — who openly said that they weren’t going to build a pool for “those kids” to swim with their kids.

Q: Who were “those kids”?

The black children. The children from Shinnecock, the other kids. Many of them had the ability to have their kids “waterproofed” and had their own pools, which over time has become more and more abundant in the community. … That was the biggest tragedy — that the school should have had it.

Q: STAR was founded in 1989. What was the progression from there to when a referendum was held?

Well, again, back in 1989 we were trying. There was a group of us who did some fundraisers. … Because of your newspaper, quite frankly, really, truly, an article that followed the drowning death of that young boy came at a moment when a very, very affluent woman made a major donation to us. That, with the fundraising efforts that were made back in the 1980s and early 1990s, we had a pot of money that we were trying to leverage.

… I grew up in the Boston area. Lots of places had either a Y or a pool. Everywhere except near the water — where people have this mistaken understanding that because you live near the water in the Northeast, that your kids of course learned to swim, because there’s water everywhere. Well, of course, we know that’s not true. Not even a lot of professional fishermen can swim. It’s really quite astounding.

… We reached a point where [STAR] was asked to be a part of a group of people that the town was soliciting requests for proposals. We were part of that team that decided that the best location was going to be Southampton College. The college at the time was going to do a partnership with the hospital, STAR and the town.

Well, you know what happened to the college. It went down. The hospital had its financial difficulty. The town got into the whole Tea Party and tax movement, and it ended up sitting there trying to get to a referendum. When we went for the referendum [in 1998], it failed.

… I’ll tell you, in 1998, we were making calls for that referendum — we heard the same language. “What are we building, an inkwell? We’re not building it.” “We shouldn’t use taxpayers’ money for a project like this.” It was appalling.

In 1998, it would have maybe cost the average family 200 bucks, less than what an annual membership would be. The moment was lost.

From that point, the project basically … everybody just was exhausted, and it sat idle until about 2014, 2015.

I started conversations again with Jean and the group that was remaining. We decided to do an initial feasibility study. We were looking, initially, at a 50-meter pool. Fifty meters is an Olympic-length pool.

… We got the results of that feasibility study, and all of us looked at the results and said, “What?” This initial study suggested that we could have made, right out of the box, at the time, it was $400,000 a year, and it would run in the black.

Well, nobody believed those numbers. Just like you get a second opinion for medical reasons, we got a second opinion [in 2018] from probably the preeminent aquatic consulting firm in the world, one of them, Counsilman-Hunsaker. They said, “Absolutely, you don’t have the right size pool.” That area, with no other drawer, especially in winter, could not sustain a 50-meter pool. … They said that it couldn’t be done.

… We started rethinking our plan. In trying to be as transparent as we can, we’ve talked to the Village Board, we’ve talked to lots of local people, and our greatest model for what we want to do is what J. Andreassi and the wonderful people who set up the [Southampton Youth Services] project did. They told us that they built only, really, what they could afford to build. They were all businesspeople who took out mortgages to get this done. I give all the credit in the world to all the people who started SYS. They were really local people who wanted a sports facility for their kids and for the community. God bless them. They did it, and they did it well, and it’s operating fine.

… We began the process of revising our plan. We [downsized] the pool to 25 yards. We were trying to even break it down to 25 yards by 20 yards so that we could cut costs.

We’ve gone from $25 million to $19 million and change on the capital side. But we do still have to continue to fundraise an endowment for the operating expenses.

… We would make that pledge that, again, we’re not putting a shovel in the ground and we’re not doing anything until the bulk of the funds are raised.

Q: You said the project was originally slated at $25 million, and you have it down to $19 million. How much of that have you raised?

Well, we’ve only raised a small amount of that. Without getting into specifics, we spent basically the last two years … the first part of it was trying to find a fundraising company that would professionally handle this. We entered into an agreement with a company that, when we got down the road, it was not only where we were going to have to pay them an enormous amount of money, but we were going to also have to hire someone who was locally based, because this company was out in the West, in Seattle.

… We spent almost a year and a half trying to find the right person. We believe we found the right person. Last November, we hired a woman named Kim Folks. … We had found, we believed, someone who grew up in Westhampton, knew all the players out here, was a master swimmer herself, so she’s passionate on that level, but grew up in this coastal area and knew the importance of it.

… So, we started looking. We looked at Downs Park. We had a conversation with the Village Board, who were very supportive. We looked at other parcels that were on the table that Jay [Schneiderman] had shared with us.

We realized that we needed to get professional advice. We secured the services of Tim Rumpf, whose wife is a former colleague of mine at Southampton High School. She was a music teacher. Tim is a site planner and a landscape architect.

Tim did a professional analysis of five parcels: Downs Park in the Water Mill area, Moses Lane Park/Magee Street, Red Creek Park, SYS and the college. In his analysis, the facility, the parcel that made the most sense, was Magee Street.

Q: Why was that?

Why was that? Because, A, the amount of land there — it amounts to 5.8 [acres], or, there’s a little extra little sliver, that’s about 6.3 acres of land that’s already been disturbed. … [The site] would need virtually no clearing, because the facility, it would be on the site

where the school was, the IGHL building.

… Basically, what [Mr. Rumpf] found was that the [site] offered us the ability to have enough land to buffer it from our neighbors. Enough disturbed land that we wouldn’t lose any major trees. Let me just give you his comment: “This site was part of a planned development district. … We think this parcel would be the least problematic of the three to pursue for the approval to build a community pool facility.”

… When he did the analysis of Red Creek Park, one of the concerns there was that it’s located within the Central Pine Barrens. That there are some distinct clearing restrictions.

The additional clearing could create issues.

Q: How big was the site in Red Creek?

How big? We were dedicated 2 acres. Last I recall, someone said there were 6 acres remaining on that site. If they’re contiguous to our 2, I’m not sure. … In Tim’s analysis, he believes it would be virtually impossible without asking for additional land.

… We don’t want to say no to Red Creek until or unless it’s found that we can’t do it at Magee Street. … We were told that approximately 41,000 cars go down County Road 39 every day. When we asked our sports facilities people about who would be more apt to use this pool, it’s people who live within a 20-minute radius of the pool.

Q: The notion of changing the interpretation of the Community Preservation Fund set-asides for recreation to include the construction of a facility — I think it’s fair to say that, until now, the idea of the preserved land being used for recreation, it was meant for passive recreation, hiking and things like that. It’s going to change the nature of how CPF money can be used and how the properties can be used in the future — allowing construction on a property that was preserved, even though it’s for a recreational purpose.

Well, probably one of the most honest, hardworking, thoughtful politicians I’ve ever met in my life is Fred Thiele. This is his legacy, and he deserves all of the credit in the world. I think that the Community Preservation Fund is one of the most significant things that happened in the 34 years that I’ve lived on the East End.

I’m not going to speak for Fred. This is his baby. But I will say, my knowledge of the Community Preservation Fund, if you look at the language of that phrase, the title, it’s not a land preservation fund. This is not a Peconic Land Trust. This is a Community Preservation Fund. The Community Preservation Fund helped rebuild the Sag Harbor Cinema, which I dearly love. … Thank God, they’re using it now to help people improve the quality of the water. Was that in the thinking? No. But how do you preserve a community unless you care about its water? Care about the children?

… As a citizen and a person who’s lived out there for over 30 years, I for one, want to see the community preserved.

… When one of the naysayers of this project had the audacity to suggest that children were an afterthought in this, and that it was about older people wanting access to a pool — I’m not even a swimmer. I swim. I took lessons in college because I had to get it to graduate, but my family was not very wealthy and I didn’t have a pool in my yard, and I didn’t know how to swim until I got to college.

… Children are at the heart of this. You can’t preserve a coastal community without thinking about water. … That kids could live, not in fear, that they could have some joy in and around the water.

… We’re in the Northeast coastal community. … What you might learn for a few weeks in the summer is not sustained through the winter, where there is nothing for children to do except sit on their couches and play their video games. This could be a community hub.

This could be a place where not only the kids learn to swim but the community comes together — the first responders, the ocean lifeguards.

… When I spoke to Fred Thiele about this parcel months ago, Fred, who I respect and trust, and gets it, I said to him, “Could this be an appropriate use?” He said, “The land was not purchased exclusively for open space. It was purchased explicitly in the language for parks and recreation.”

… This facility will have a very different traffic profile than a shopping center. Nobody’s here trying to make a buck off of this. We’re trying to save lives. We’re trying to make this community a place where people can be surrounded by water without fear and have a little bit of fun and keep kids healthy in the winter. … This could be a real transformational place.

Q: Let’s say the project is done and it’s operating. Explain to me how that works. Will there be memberships? Will there be adults and kids all using the facility at the same time? How do you make it affordable for local kids?

Okay. Again, we’ve got the perfect model in SYS. SYS has reasonable memberships. … We would have a membership fee. It would be appropriate, as you see them at Suffolk County Community College. … That would be our commitment, in terms of saying, it may cost us $19 million to build, but we intend to probably raise enough money in an endowment to offset costs so that we can keep membership low.

This is not going to become a private club for exclusivity. We have enough of those around.

Q: How can you guarantee that, though? Because that is one of the things that opponents say, that if your plan fails, it might be something that then would be sold to a private interest to run.

There are many details to work out before we break ground. It’s going to take a couple more years of planning and fundraising to do it. But be assured that we have started initial conversations. We haven’t fleshed out all the details of that, because we’re not ready to.

We have no intent to saddle anybody with this burden. This is not going to be a taxpayer-driven burden. … We haven’t gotten to that because we will not enter into that conversation until we get the bulk of the funds raised. When we get 80 percent of the funds raised, we need to start thinking about what the structure of this [will be].

… When we reconstructed this, we actually started to see that by the third year, we should start operating in the black. If everything goes well.

Q: Is it fair to say that this step this week, when you can get an approval like that, does it get you that much closer to being able to get the funding to begin moving forward? And can you give me an idea how far along you are? Are you at 10 percent? 20 percent?

No. We’re under 5 percent. This was what I had to do when I became president, was to say, “We had over a half-million dollars. We had over $600,000 raised.” It sat there. We didn’t buy a cup of coffee, a stamp. Anything and everything we did was out of our pockets and still remained out of our pockets until last November, when we did the feasibility study.

… I don’t think my opinion should be the thing that makes people believe in this project. I believe they need to look at numbers. They need to know that there are funds. There are grants. There are ways. There are corporate sponsors. There are all kinds of things.

… This is, first and foremost, a facility that the only reason I got connected was to “waterproof” our kids. It remains the reason why, today, I still stay in this, because I made a promise so many years ago that I will not stop until I find somebody who shares this.
… This is not an exaggeration: We have access right now to close to a dozen very, very

deep-pocketed multimillionaires, billionaires, through three different sources. Okay. I can’t go into anything more. We’re in a pivotal moment, and we just need this green light to get this property dedicated so we can go ahead and prove whether we can make it or not.