The Grand Marshall of this year’s HarborFest parade talks about what makes Sag Harbor’s business district so successful, how the community has changed and the secret to those garlic rolls.
By Kathryn G. Menu
After three decades of being in the center of the business community in Sag Harbor, it must be gratifying to be recognized as the grand marshal in this year’s HarborFest celebration.
I will actually be riding in the car during the parade with Dave Lee, which is interesting because he and I were the original founders of the Chamber of Commerce.
I was, of course, honored. No question about it, but I was kind of surprised because I have always tried to keep a low profile. I am more of a do-er than a show-er.
What is nice about the festival is it is really a continuation of what it was in its beginnings, the Old Whalers Festival. I was there when the festival originated in the 1960s by a group called The Gentlemen of the Round Table. John Steinbeck became involved, and then it was quite different. We had international whaleboat racing teams, and ships from Norway and Finland docked in New York Harbor would stay in the area to compete. It was a fairly big deal, covered by all the newspapers.
I am glad we have this continuation of the festival, and it’s good for the businesses because it brings extra activity to the village after Labor Day weekend. The whaleboat races, the clam shucking, it is tradition.
This year, HarborFest coincides with the tenth anniversary of 9-11. Do you remember where you were that day? Did you find people coming from Manhattan to find refuge at your restaurant, Il Cappuccino?
I do remember it, very well. I was here, of course. I have been in Sag Harbor since 1964. I remember we actually debated whether or not to have HarborFest at all [that next weekend]. The final decision was that we wanted to keep fighting, win and go ahead and run the festival, almost in defiance of the people who did so many terrible things to us.
We did have quite a few people come out to Sag Harbor, not only second homeowners, but people who stayed in our hotels, or in homes with friends and consequently, quite a few families that came around that time moved here from the city, and took permanent residence in the village. But, it was a terrible year.
Sag Harbor’s Main Street is quite vibrant and very busy. As we have seen neighboring communities struggle to attract the same volume into their business district, what is it about Sag Harbor that makes it so popular?
There are a couple of factors. The first factor is no Main Street has the scenery of the waterfront like we do. You walk down Main Street and end up on Long Wharf looking out at a beautiful bay with sailboats. Second, the restaurants on Main Street and the movie house bring people into the village, and of course with the addition of Bay Street Theatre, that was another factor. Main Street, Sag Harbor has a lot of different attractions, for diners, for theatre lovers and people who want to take in a movie. The Chamber has also always promoted the idea of keeping our stores open late, so people can browse around, while many stores in other communities close at 6 p.m. Once you create the traffic on the sidewalks, you create the business.
Another thing that is nice, is when people come to Sag Harbor for dining, they have so many choices and they park their cars and walk from place to place. And we also have a variety of restaurants, from Mexican to French to Italian, Thai, Continental and Japanese.
We are very fortunate, but it wasn’t always this way. When we founded the chamber, a good number of stores on Main Street were boarded up. In the winter, it was even worse. We survived, we didn’t make any money, but we survived. Even Il Cappuccino, which has always been popular, closed for two months in the winter. It’s a big difference between today and 30 years ago. It is almost like people discovered us. They started coming, and finding out about Sag Harbor.
Is the business community largely supportive of each other in Sag Harbor? Is it a real community?
The Main Street community is very tight together. We have good participation in the Chamber, we have good spirit.
As a member of the village planning board, you have presided over the review of many re-development projects in Sag Harbor, including the approved condominiums at the former Bulova Watchcase Factory. As a planning board member, how do you personally weigh the impact a project will have on the village?
I take a lot into consideration. There is always the spirit to say, ‘We don’t want anything. We are good the way we are.’ But in my experience as a businessman, nothing stays the same way. If you don’t grow, you go the other way, and you can start going backwards.
Having said that, with the Bulova project, we have a very historic building that is very much a part of the history of Sag Harbor and this building is falling apart. To demolish the building, I don’t think would be historically a very good thing to do. It would be very bad. The demolition would cause more trouble than the reconstruction, because at least the main structure would remain the same.
Economically, I believe the project will support our tax rolls, it will support the village’s sewage system, as they will have to participate in sharing the cost of that. For the village, it’s a benefit. For the businesses, it will bring people with disposable income into the village, and they will spend money in our community. Another factor is most of them will not enter children into the public schools, which means we will not see an increase in enrollment, but we will still collect school taxes from those residents.
We know we have a clean bill from the New York State Department of Environmental Conservation, but it would be good to have whatever is left over there that could be toxic removed from the site during excavation and taken out of town.
Parking isn’t an issue, because they have their own parking and they have created a very attractive design. There will be street lights and landscaping on the side streets where it is kind of unattractive right now.
It was in consideration of this, and other factors, that we made the decision to approve that project and hopefully it goes forward.
Does having a thriving business like Il Cappuccino make you more protective of the changes proposed in the village?
Absolutely not. I am just one of the businesspeople in this community. I think there is a respect from the business community for me because I am one of the oldest. I was running Baron’s Cove in 1964 when the festival originated in June to promote summer business. The thought was, why don’t we commemorate our heritage, and it just went from there. Like everything else, at some point it did deteriorate, there was drinking and some people started having second thoughts about the festival, but it was revived and became Sag HarborFest, which is what it is today.
I have to ask, what is the secret to those ridiculously good garlic rolls?
You must be the 10,001st person to ask me that question. There is no secret.
Just lots of garlic?
Garlic and olive oil. It’s the way you make it, though, the way you work the dough, the levitation, the baking, it’s the labor.