By Kathryn G. Menu
Executive Director Tracy Mitchell and creative directors Sybil Christopher and Murphy Davis once dreamed of Bay Street Theatre as the crown jewel in a center for the arts developed on Sag Harbor’s Long Wharf. In addition to the theater, they imagined an area featuring gallery spaces for working artists and a John Steinbeck museum, solidifying Sag Harbor Village as the cultural and artistic center of the Hamptons.
That dream could not be further from where Bay Street Theatre finds itself today. Perhaps the biggest change Sag Harbor residents are currently attempting to cope with is the very real possibility that, come 2013, Bay Street Theatre will no longer call Sag Harbor home. If that happens, the village will have lost not only an important cultural institution, but also a critical economic driver.
For over 20 years, Bay Street Theatre’s Long Wharf home has been in a space owned by Patrick Malloy III. However, in December, Mitchell announced that the theater’s board of trustees and its administration had decided not to renew its three year lease with Malloy for 2013, meaning this summer could be the last for Bay Street in its current location.
According to Mitchell, between the theater space lease, rent to house actors and production staff locally during the expensive Hamptons’ summer season and rent for production design space in Riverhead, Bay Street spends about $500,000 in rent alone.
Mitchell points out the fact Bay Street Theatre does not have a permanent location prevents it from investing in housing or securing donors looking to give to an arts organization with a long-term space to call home. The high cost of rent also makes the theater undesirable to artistic foundations offering grants. The mission of many of these groups is not to subsidize rent, but rather ensure their funding will be used for programming alone, said Mitchell.
The need for Bay Street Theatre to find a permanent home or at the very least a decades-long lease, said Mitchell, was the reason the board and administration finally decided it was time for Bay Street’s second act, where the celebrated theater finds its next home.
With Malloy unwilling to sell his property, Bay Street Theatre officials began canvassing Sag Harbor. It also began entertaining offers from other communities. Bay Street has been approached by Richler Equity Partners, which would build the organization a new theater in a business park at the old Gabreski Airport in Westhampton. The Parrish Art Museum, which hopes to open its new facility in Water Mill next year, has also offered Bay Street a space in its new home.
However, during a community meeting last month, Davis noted that the offer from Southampton Village is the most attractive. That village has offered Bay Street Theatre the opportunity to serve as the anchor tenant for the Southampton Center of the Arts at 25 Jobs Lane in the space now held by the Parrish Art Museum.
Southampton Mayor Mark Epley has said he would offer the theater a long-term lease for a nominal fee in the hopes of making the arts center a destination in the Hamptons. Exactly how a potential partnership would work between Southampton Village and Bay Street and how renovations of the space would be financed remain unclear at this point.
However, according to Mitchell, Davis and members of the Bay Street Board of Trustees, the theater remains committed to staying in Sag Harbor, if possible, and would even be willing to enter into another short-term lease with Malloy if they could secure a home in Sag Harbor now to develop for the future.
Since the community meeting last month, the board has focused its efforts on fully vetting all available options in Sag Harbor before making its decision, said Mitchell in an interview last week. Possible options in Sag Harbor include the National Grid site on Long Island Avenue (home of the former gas ball), the Schiavoni property on Jermain Avenue and continuing negotiations with Malloy about staying in the current space.
Other options, including combining forces with the Sag Harbor School District or attempting to secure a location at the former Stella Maris Regional School on Division Street have pretty much been ruled out, said Mitchell last week.
Mitchell said the board is also exploring the viability of creating a benefit district in the 11963 area code to support the theater. While the board has said it would like to make a decision about its future sometime this winter, according to Mitchell, any deadlines the theater has set are self-imposed and flexible at this point.
“This is a big decision and it deserves the attention we are giving to it,” said Mitchell. “We have to know whether or not Sag Harbor is really a possibility or if it is not.”