Sag Harbor Business Community Considers Political Arm
By Kathryn G. Menu
Owners from some of Sag Harbor’s most treasured businesses gathered last Thursday at The American Hotel to discuss changing demographics in the village, tourism, parking woes and the impact of Airbnb on one of the last South Fork Main Streets with a number of owner-operated storefronts, for the time being at least.
It was the first in what is going to be a series of meetings, according to Sag Harbor Chamber of Commerce President Lisa Field, who organized the session at the behest of hotel owner Ted Conklin, although Ms. Field stressed prior to the discussion that this was not a chamber event, but rather the first in a series of discussions for business owners who own their buildings.
On Wednesday, Ms. Field said this was the first step towards the group formalizing itself as a body that will exist outside the chamber, and one that would be more political in nature — addressing issues, and bringing concerns that impact businesses to the village boards.
“These are just the first couple steps,” she said. “Right now, we are trying to figure out a mission statement — or a ‘Main Street’ credo as Ted calls it,” said Ms. Field. “The idea of us having a voice in village government is important, and is one of the goals, but at this point a lot of this is new, so we are still discussing how that would work.”
“The purpose of today is to start the conversation and have our voices heard,” said Ms. Field, opening Thursday’s meeting. “We do not expect to solve any issues in one meeting. This is our start, it’s a jumping off point.”
Mr. Conklin walked the group through his observations about what he believes is impacting the business community in a negative way, raising concerns about the potential traffic impacts the proposed Sag Harbor Cinema project could have, as well as the impact a very successful fundraising effort on the part of the cinema committee — created by the Sag Harbor Partnership — could have on non-profits like Bay Street Theater. He also questioned whether the proposed, and currently stalled, plans for the John Steinbeck Memorial Park next to the Lance Corporal Jordan C. Haerter Veterans Memorial Bridge would be a benefit, or a drain, on village taxpayers and businesses.
“Seasonal business returns are coming in, and from Southampton to Montauk this has been a really terrible season,” said Mr. Conklin, noting that restaurants have reported declines in business as large as 8 percent, 10 percent, and even 20 percent in some cases, with some hotels reporting declines as large as 30 percent. Mr. Conklin said he has discussed the issue with Sag Harbor Inn owner Nathaniel Egosi, adding that Airbnb rentals have largely destroyed the ability for hotels to demand three-night minimums in the summer season. Whereas the Hampton Classic Horse Show used to draw hotel guests in by the dozen, he said this year that crowd was virtually non-existent at his venue.
“I am suggesting we need a board of commerce,” said Mr. Conklin, advocating for a government body that would represent the business community.
Jim Larocca, the lone member of the Sag Harbor Village Board of Trustees at Thursday’s meeting, encouraged the group to look at the potential of the Steinbeck Park as one that would benefit Sag Harbor, and said that the board was looking into Airbnb, noting there were 350 listings on the site in the village alone.
Michael Schiavoni, the owner of Schiavoni’s Market, shared this thoughts through a letter read by Mr. Conklin, pointing to a lack of parking and rising home values pushing year-round families out of Sag Harbor as two reasons why the village business district is seeing a shift in its patron’s habits.
“Now you will have less people here in the off season, and we cannot squeeze any more people in our village in the summer,” wrote Mr. Schiavoni, noting that it will make it difficult for businesses to sustain in the winter.
“People are also turning to the internet for goods and services, which has affected many of you for a while, but is creeping into the food service business as well,” he continued. “As a group we need to find ways to make it more seamless and user friendly to get in and out of the village in the summer. We also need to find more ways to draw more people into the town in the offseason.”
In addition to ensuring the village retains the lease to the PSEG lot on West Water Street, Mr. Schiavoni suggested the village explore shuttle service, perhaps from Havens Beach, to Main Street during the summer months to reduce congestion.
Virginia Morris, who has worked with a group of community members on parking issues and traffic congestion, said the issue was how “do you keep Sag Harbor’s soul.” She advocated against looking at the parking issue as one that could be fixed through a parking garage.
“That has destroyed an endless number of villages like ours,” she said, noting that people will park a few blocks away if it means they can experience Sag Harbor’s walkable Main Street, suggesting the group consider more creative ways to reduce congestion.
“We have got to face that things change,” said Nada Barry, the owner of The Wharf Shop, which celebrates 50 years this season. “In 50 years, oh my gosh, what I have watched change and come and go and develop. In this world, as far as I am concerned, you have to accept change.”
Ms. Barry — who was joined by Vicki Nolan of Country Lane in noting they had one of their best summer seasons yet this year — agreed working on a remote parking solution with shuttle service was a good idea, and also continued a long-standing call for public bathrooms near Main Street, suggesting port-o-potties be erected behind the Municipal Building. Currently, the public bathrooms in the Municipal Building are closed on weekends and holidays, with the only public facility located on Bay Street.
David Brogna, the vice president of the Chamber of Commerce and the owner of In Home on Main Street, agreed business owners need a voice in local government. In East Hampton and Southampton towns, business alliances have formed to address issues with local government, with the Chamber of Commerce focused on bringing visitors to the towns.
Jeff Peters, a lifelong resident, owner of JCP Landscaping and member of the Harbor Committee, said the village needed to communicate more with its tax base.
Parking could also be improved, suggested Mr. Conklin, through technology and seasonal, tiered paid parking in parts of Sag Harbor.
Peter D’Angelo, who is a third generation owner of Sag Harbor Emporium True Value Hardware, said Airbnb and parking were the two issues impacting their business the most, but that the group as a whole needed to prioritize its mission if it is going to be successful.
Tracy Mitchell, the executive director of Bay Street Theater, said parking impacted her staff this summer for the first time, and that fundraising was down for the theater this year, as the Sag Harbor Partnership has raised over $6 million towards the purchase of the cinema.
“I think it is very clear, and we have real evidence of this, there is only a certain amount of money to go around in terms of donated money,” she said. “We have been seriously hurt this year, we are down between 400,000 and 500,000 at this moment in terms of donations, and we know the park is trying to raise another 500,000 at the other end of the street. So, there are a lot of really good causes trying to raise a lot of money, and there is a lot of money being sucked out of the room by the cinema, and I think it is going to be really tough for any of us. I don’t know how to resolve it yet, somehow we are going to have to work together.”
“Many of our board members are friends and supporters of Bay Street, and we look forward to supporting their efforts, which we have continued to do while working on the Cinema,” wrote the board of the Sag Harbor Partnership in a statement. “The fundraising we do this year and next is for a one-time effort to raise money to save the cinema. We won’t have a second chance to buy and rebuild this landmark. We are beyond grateful to all who have chosen to support this campaign that has now raised over $6 million dollars. We are preparing to close and begin construction as soon as we can.”
On Wednesday, Ms. Field said the group would likely get together again in October to review goals and a mission statement.
“We want to meet the changing demand of visitors and customers using modern solutions,” she said. “We value the quality of life in Sag Harbor, and need to preserve Main Street and the business district. What we are trying to work on is sustainability, and how to grow our businesses and continue to be able to run our businesses here.”