To cheers and applause, the Southampton Town Board on Tuesday, October 23, unanimously approved the use of $4 million from the Community Preservation Fund to purchase easements over the facade of the Sag Harbor Cinema.
The movie theater, which was heavily damaged by fire two years ago, was purchased last year by a spinoff of the Sag Harbor Partnership, which aims to renovate it into the Sag Harbor Cinema Arts Center.
Although $8 million was raised to buy the burned out shell of the building, the group has been working to raise millions more for a top-to-bottom renovation that would include dividing the main screening hall into two spaces and adding offices, classrooms, and a cafe.
Under the agreement with the town, the new cinema center would be required to limit ticket prices for town residents to 80 percent of the average movie ticket price in town.
April Gornik, the partnership’s vice president and the driving force behind the effort to preserve the theater, said the easement “would ensure that the Sag Harbor Cinema would remain a cinema for perpetuity.”
Nick Gazzolo, the partnership’s president, said while it was true supporters of the project want to restore the theater’s famous Sag Harbor neon sign and bring back an important component of the village’s cultural life, the project would also have an economic benefit.
“It’s really about bringing people to Main Street, having them to go restaurants and stores and enjoy the village that we love so much,” he told the board. An economic impact study estimated the cinema would inject $9.6 million a year into the village economy, he said.
“We hope to deliver this facility with no debt, already paid for with a enough money to hire a first-class staff,” added Susan Mead, the partnership’s treasurer. She said the money from the sale of the easement, coupled with other expected grants, would allow the organization to operate for a year with limited cash flow so it could get on its feet.
Dr. Robbie Stein, a former village trustee and president of the Sag Harbor Cinema Arts Council, said more than 2000 people had donated to the restoration effort, and he thanked the town board for considering a non-traditional use of CPF money.
“The arts in this community also open people’s minds,” he said. “In that way it’s also open space.”
Allen Kopelson, the architect overseeing the renovation, touted the historic preservation aspect of the project.
He said the building would be restored exactly as it was because the original architectural drawings had been found and the Sag Harbor sign had been removed the night of the fire before the crumbling façade was knocked down. Other historic elements, from exit signs to the end panels on rows of seats, would be preserved or protected, he said.
But not everyone thought it was a good idea. Robert Anrig, the chairman of the community advisory board for the town CPF, said the proposal had been brought to his committee last December “and it was voted unanimously by the members of the advisory board to decline it in the strongest of terms.”
He said board members were concerned about using CPF money for a commercial enterprise and for claiming a historic façade easement for a building that will only be the replica of a historic building.
Jessica Insalaco agreed with Anrig’s assessment. “This building is already protected by numerous historic district laws,” she said, suggesting that CPF money could go to better uses. David Seely also opposed the expenditure of CPF money, suggesting more money could be directed to water quality projects.
Before casting its unanimous vote, board members offered their opinions. “I think it is not only an appropriate use of CPF funds, but an excellent use of CPF funds,” said Supervisor Jay Schneiderman. “This is an iconic, historic building, often photographed, often painted. We refer to Sag Harbor so often as the iconic downtown. That’s what everyone wants their downtown to look like.”
He suggested the town should consider similar purchases. “We probably don’t spend enough on historic preservation,” he said.
Councilman Tommy John Schiavoni, who lives in North Haven, said when the cinema burned “a whole was blown in the side of the Village of Sag Harbor.”
“This is the center of our community,” he continued, saying he had gone to the theater as a child and hoped his children, grandchildren, and future generations could enjoy it. “I believe this is an appropriate use of CPF.”