When fire swept through the Sag Harbor Cinema in late 2016, East End residents were left to wonder whether the days of being able to catch a quirky, offbeat independent film in the village were over.
But soon after the fire, the Sag Harbor Cinema Arts Center was created to purchase the ruins and restore the theater. Although the group was able to quickly raise the $8 million needed to purchase the building, it still needs millions of dollars to complete the restoration.
Enter the Southampton Town Community Preservation Fund. Recently, the town board floated the idea of using nearly $4 million to buy an easement to protect the historic façade of the theater and its Sag Harbor neon sign.
The decision has raised some eyebrows. Most people think of the CPF as a tool to protect open space such as woodlands and farm fields. But the fund also can be used to protect historic properties. While that may conjure up images of colonial-era saltbox houses or windmills, a strong argument can be made that the cinema sign may be the most recognizable landmark in Sag Harbor, a village with an extensive historic district.
Furthermore, until it agreed to ante up some $10 million to purchase the property that will become the John Steinbeck Waterfront Park, Southampton Town had earmarked very little in preservation funds for properties in Sag Harbor Village. You could not blame Sag Harbor if it questioned the benefit of the two-percent transfer tax that fuels the CPF if the village continued to be shut out of expenditures, despite a booming real estate market that has added millions of dollars to the pot.
Given that the building is a landmark and will be used for the cultural benefit of the entire region — and not to subsidize a private business owner — this is a reasonable use of CPF money, provided the town does not try to micromanage the center by imposing limits on ticket prices as has been suggested. When the Southampton Town Board holds a hearing on the matter at Town Hall on October 23, it should be encouraged to vote yes on this proposal.