From our perch on Main Street, circa 2012, it seems evident that Sag Harbor is on the precipice of change. In addition to construction projects like a much needed library expansion and the conversion of the Bulova building into luxury condos, there are departures as well. The village’s cultural anchor, Bay Street Theatre, may bid adieu to Sag Harbor within the year, and there are a slew of vacant storefronts on Main Street where recently there were family run businesses.
So we’ve spent recent weeks pondering what this place is and what it’s destined to become. We’ve talked to shop owners, landlords, residents and elected officials. And while perspectives may vary, when it comes to Sag Harbor the one unifying message we’re getting is this: things are going to be okay.
Change is an inevitable part of life and this isn’t the first time the village has been through uncertain times, nor are these the most drastic examples of them. Consider what it was like to be tied to Sag Harbor’s primary industry in the 19th century —whaling — when it collapsed with the decimation of the species and the discovery of gold in California in 1849. And more than 100 years later, anyone who was living here in the 1980s will tell you, after the Bulova factory closed its doors Sag Harbor fell on pretty hard times, and stayed there until the next influx — tourists and second homeowners — revitalized this place.
There is an outward migration occurring now too. It’s endemic, not just in Sag Harbor but all over the East End where the cost of living is disproportionately high. Cheaper parts of the country beckon, especially to young people who can’t afford to settle here. But one of the other big reasons for the exodus from Sag Harbor is people cashing out. Residents who benefited from the influx of that wealthier demographic in the last 30 years and are now selling houses for $1 million that they bought half a century ago for $20,000.
While there has long been a sense of locals vs. newcomers, on Main Street, the fact is some older businesses wouldn’t be here today if newcomers hadn’t arrived to rejuvenate the village. Recognizing and adjusting to a changing market is the nature of being a good business person. But given the competition from outside the area, small town entrepreneurs can no longer operate under the assumption that being the only game in town is enough to carry them through. They need to be the best merchants they can be and give residents a reason to visit their stores first, not as a last resort. That’s what saves small town Main Street.
Yes, the cost of living and property values are extraordinarily high here and the wolf is at the gate in the form of high end chains that have utterly destroyed the character of East Hampton Village. But let’s keep it in perspective. Most communities in the country would kill to have Sag Harbor’s “problems.” And those who lament the situation here would do well to consider the alternative. In many cities in the Midwest, the jobs are long gone, the population has fled, schools are atrocious, neighborhoods are blighted and a large percentage of the houses are boarded up.
So now many wonder why Sag Harbor can’t just stay the way it is now. But the fact is, freezing a place in time isn’t possible — nor is it desirable. It may be feasible on a superficial level, but at what cost? Do we really want to be Disneyland?
There is no silver bullet to saving Sag Harbor, but one of the most intriguing ideas we came away with is the notion of true partnership between landlords, business owners, the municipality and residents. Its admittedly an idea made of gossamer —impossible to legislate and based entirely on the perceived moral responsibility that any one entity has in taking an active role to preserve what the majority want to see here. An ethereal something held together only by individual will and a sense of obligation and other intangibles that we all share. But the fact we share a vision is a start.
It’s a delicate thing that exists here at this moment in time. How do you make it stay? How do you make anything organic stay, be it true love or a perfect summer day? There’s no legislation for this kind of thing. It simply has to exist and be nurtured in the hearts of the people who live here.