By Bryan Boyhan
When the noon whistle blows in Sag Harbor today, it still signals the time of day. But hundreds of workers no longer spill out of the factories that once employed most of the able-bodied of Sag Harbor and hundreds more from neighboring villages.
There was Agawam Aircraft and Grumman Industries. The Bulova Watchcase Factory alone employed 700 on three shifts at its height. Today, the Bulova building is being renovated into luxury condominiums for a clientele that will spend a million dollars and more for one of the 65 condos or townhouses. Likely, according to most observers, these will be seasonal residents.
And they are expected to be a far cry from the blue collar men and women who worked on assembly lines or, like Sag Harbor Village Mayor Brian Gilbride, as a polisher, bringing up the luster in the watchcases that were the company’s hallmark.
Gilbride, a lifelong resident of the village, remembers 40 or 50 years ago how hundreds filled Main Street when the whistle blew. They jammed into restaurants and bars for lunch or went to Bohacks market to buy food for dinner. In those days, the factories provided a living for hundreds of working families.
“We were the unHampton factory town,” said Gilbride who acknowledges that Sag Harbor today is a long way from what it was when he worked polishing metals. “I bought my first piece of property to build a house for $2,500.”
Today, when he scans the latest home sales, he’s surprised by what he sees. Modest houses in the neighborhoods where he spent his youth are selling for $2 million and up.
“I ask myself, ‘Who’s living here?’” he said.
It is evident this changing population has had a dramatic impact on the goods and services available on Main Street. There is no shoe store, or even a place to get shoes repaired. Nor is there a dry cleaner or a tailor. Saloons like Sal & Joe’s, where thirsty factory workers bought pitchers of beer for 50 cents, now offer a more well-heeled crowd a smorgasbord of world-class dining choices.
BMWs are as common as Chevys and Lamborghinis or Ferraris prowl the village even in February. Gucci couture and mega yachts have made Sag Harbor a regular stop on their East Coast cruising schedule.
But consider this statistic as an indication of the impact of a changing demographic. In 2000, the total assessed value of all the real estate in the village was $46.6 million. Ten years later that number was $2.2 billion — yes, that’s billion.
Mayor Gilbride recalls he noticed a turning point when the waterfront began to change.
“As more people began to come in, the village became recognized as a great boating and sailing community,” said Gilbride.
“Pat Malloy’s docks (at Waterfront Marina adjacent to Long Wharf) began to grow. The marinas under the bridge in the cove began to grow,” said Gilbride. “And bigger boats began coming.”
Driving the local economy are not older families who have lived here for generations, nor the tourist who visits only during the summer, acknowledge local merchants — instead it is second-home-owners, those who live elsewhere, but spend weekends here all year, and a growing year-round population made up of transplanted New Yorkers.
“For me we don’t have the ‘during the week’ clients out here at all that we used to have,” said Nada Barry, proprietor of the Wharf Shop for the past 40 years. “Now it’s down to summers and weekends, a change within the community for everybody as far as purchasing.”
Jack Tagliasacchi, owner of Il Cappuccino restaurant and a founder of the local chamber of commerce, remembers a time, after the factories closed, when the village began to cast its fortunes toward tourism.
“We put a lot of effort into it,” he said.
And people began to come.
As many of the families who had relied on the factories for a living moved out of state to find work, “there was a kind of depression here,” he said. But as a result of the effort to attract visitors who appreciated the authenticity of the 19th century village, a change took hold.
“In the last decade a lot of new people started to move here,” said Tagliasacchi. “They were very attracted to the village. We noticed a new clientele in shops. They were looking for a better product, a nicer place.”
Many families who had owned homes in Sag Harbor for generations took advantage of rising real estate values, sold their homes and decamped to more affordable and temperate areas of the country — North Carolina, Delaware or Arizona.
At the same time, as Sag Harbor’s real estate revolution took place in the late 1990s and early 2000s, smaller, locally-based real estate groups merged and were bought by national firms like Corcoran, Brown Harris Stevens and Sotheby’s. These companies saw an opportunity to create relationships with clients in other parts of the country, many of whom had primary homes in Manhattan and second homes in Palm Beach or Miami, who also wanted a third place in the Hamptons.
“Most of the sales today are coming from the Manhattan market,” said Robert Evjen, president of the Sag Harbor Chamber of Commerce and a broker at the local office of Prudential Douglas Elliman. “Easily much more than half the sales here are for vacation homes.”
Referring to the project at the Bulova building, Bridgehampton National Bank president Kevin O’Connor said in an interview he believes the units there will almost certainly not be for year-round residents.
“These are not primary home owners, or even second home owners,” he opined. “These are third and fourth home owners.”
A look at US Census data presents a picture of a village that continues to evolve, and a residential group far different than it was 40 years ago — or even 10 years ago.
One striking statistic shows there are fewer year round households in the village today. The 2010 census estimates a total of 958 households. Just 10 years prior, according to the census of 2000, there were 1,155, an approximately 17 percent difference.
We are also wealthier. In 2000, the median household income in the village was $52,275, by 2010, that had risen to $85,401. In the same time period the mean household earnings rose from $70, 452 to $131,023.
Individually, village residents in 2010 were higher earners than those who lived here in 2000. The median full time male employee’s salary went from $41,181 to $79,259, while his female counterpart’s median salary rose from $34,750 to 48,405.
In 2000, the family earning group that claimed the highest percentage of Sag Harbor residents was $50,000 to $74,999, where 30.4 percent of village families fell. Remarkably, in 2010, the largest number of families — 25.9 percent — fell in the highest earnings category, $200,000 and up.
And while the year-round population in the village may be decreasing, there is evidence the greater Sag Harbor area is growing with many of the same people who are affecting downtown.
“There is still a local real estate market,” said Ed Reale, the agent who manages the Sag Harbor office of Brown Harris Stevens, “but certainly most of our sales are coming from the New York market. And many are moving to spend most of their time here.”
One of the deciding factors is the quality of the schools, said both Reale and Evjen.
Sag Harbor School Board President Mary Anne Miller points to growing enrollment as an indicator of the changing population. Less than 10 years ago, she said, there were between 800 and 900 students enrolled in Sag Harbor schools, today enrollment is nearing 1,000. Many of them are from families who relocated here from the city, notes Miller, and they have certain expectations in a school.
“With the economy,” observed Miller, “many summer families have decided to sell their Manhattan residences and move here permanently.”
She acknowledges that some are “public school phobic” — and may have moved here with the intention of sending their children to a local private school. But she adds that soon they learn Sag Harbor schools are particularly desirable. She points with pride to the fact 30 students from other districts have tuitioned into Sag Harbor this year.
The beauties and attractions of Sag Harbor — and its changing population — have not been lost on developers. Baron’s Cove, a ‘60s-style motel, is getting a makeover to become a luxury resort, and in two years tenants are expected to be moving into the Bulova building.
“The popularity of Sag Harbor continues to increase,” said David Kronman, spokesman for Cape Advisors, the Bulova project developers. “It’s one of the reasons we bought it in 2006.”
For some there is an exciting future ahead for the village, while for others the village is a victim of its own success.
“Honestly, it’s just like a child growing,” observed Mayor Gilbride. “Maybe the parent is not 100 percent happy about the attitude, but it’s how the child survives.”