By Kathryn G. Menu
It was a call Susan Mead was waiting for, on a day and time she hoped her phone would ring with good news. Serendipitously, it also came just three days before the anniversary of a fire that changed the face of Sag Harbor, and invigorated a group of local volunteers to embark on an ambitious effort not many thought they could accomplish.
But on Wednesday, Ms. Mead — a board member and officer with the Sag Harbor Partnership — picked up her phone to hear a jubilant New York State Assemblyman Fred W. Thiele Jr. report that the Sag Harbor Cinema Arts Center had been successful in its bid for $1.4 million in state grants to purchase the former Sag Harbor Cinema, a building partially destroyed when a fire swept through several buildings on Main Street on December 16 of last year.
“The announcement of the Empire State Economic Development Grant by the Governor is a dynamic example of the state’s approach to economic development,” said Ms. Mead in a statement after speaking with Mr. Thiele. “Our community-based initiative, led by the Sag Harbor Partnership and the Sag Harbor Cinema Arts Center, is honored to be part of the primary underpinning of the state’s approach to economic development.”
“This is huge,” she added. “This grant allows us to move forward with our acquisition of the Cinema. Having received such profound community support, we are grateful beyond words to our elected officials, particularly the Governor and the Long Island Regional Economic Development Council, for their support as well.”
According to Nick Gazzolo, the president of the Partnership, the state grant means the non-profit has raised $7.8 million of $8 million it needs to close on the property with owner Gerald Mallow on December 31. Mr. Gazzolo added with pledges already secured for 2018 and 2019, the state funding makes the purchase of the cinema property by the non-profit a certainty moving them past a fundraising goal set in early April when they first signed a contract with Mr. Mallow.
“To have this grant bring us so close to our goal a few days before the anniversary of the fire is a great boost,” he said. “The story of this campaign is that we are a bunch of volunteers who love Sag Harbor and Main Street and worked as hard as we could and we never gave up.”
Governor Andrew Cuomo announced the grant funding Wednesday, with Long Island earning a total of $84.3 million in state funding. Mr. Cuomo created the Regional Economic Development Councils in 2011, with ten regions vying annually for state funding.
“What better news could there be on the eve of this anniversary than this major step forward,” said Mr. Thiele on Wednesday. “This is really just a first step — this funding will go towards the acquisition of the property, but we need to keep this public-private partnership alive. I think there will clearly be funding down the line for construction.”
“Obviously, we in the legislature provide the funding for the REDC, but, in this case, we cannot say enough about the Sag Harbor Partnership,” he added. “They were relentless, worked tremendously hard on this. I also have to give thanks to Kevin Law [chair of the Long Island Regional Economic Development Council] and the regional council who fought hard for Long Island and fought hard for this project.”
The rebuilding the Sag Harbor Cinema, and expanding into the arts center that the non-profits hopes will become a beacon for film education, youth programming centered around cinema, retrospectives, as well as an art house movie theater, must be permitted by the Sag Harbor Village boards. Preliminary plans have already been discussed by the village’s Historic Preservation and Architectural Review Board. Conceptually, plans call for the division of the existing 480-seat auditorium into two separate screening rooms, one with 250 seats, the other with 150 seats. The ground-floor portion of the building that was once home to the RJD Gallery will be transformed into a café. Above that, there would be a 30-seat screening room that would double as a classroom and be available for private events.
“They are contemplating a third story, rearranging the theater area, and adding a cafe, some of which would require Zoning Board of Appeals approval in the form of a variance for setbacks, et cetera, and of course planning board approval,” said Sag Harbor Village Building Inspector Thomas Preiato last week. “Those applications are in and proceeding. Fortunately, it lies in the village building district, which is pretty lucrative as far as uses. The proposed uses are permitted uses with the proper boards’ approval.”
“I think what they are proposing is reasonable,” he added. “There is no arguing that the former theater was underused. Safety-wise, there will be the proper egress. I’ve already reviewed the egress plan. There will be fire sprinklers, as there will be in the adjoining buildings, too, so in a way we get to start from scratch here and build a code-compliant, safe structure and increase its potential for different uses.”
The Sag Harbor Cinema Arts Center and the Sag Harbor Partnership have estimated that rebuilding the cinema will cost an additional $5 million.
For Mr. Thiele, a native of Sag Harbor, Wednesday proved a fortunate day. Governor Cuomo also awarded Sag Harbor Village $550,000 for its $3 million Long Wharf project. Mr. Thiele said that while it was not the entire $2.2 million the village had hoped for, he expected there would be additional funding for the Long Wharf project available from the state in 2018. “I look at this as a down payment,” he said.
“I am happy we got the $550,000,” said trustee Robby Stein, who led the effort to obtain the grant from the state. “We still have to see the terms of the grant, of course, and I am disappointed we didn’t get the additional $1.6 million.”
The $550,000 covers the cost of erecting a walkway and lighting and some bulkhead replacement on the Wharf, with the $1.6 million for resurfacing, environmental initiatives and other projects to stabilize the wharf, said Mr. Stein.