Pictured Above: Downtown Greenport during a brief spate of sunshine on the Sunday of Memorial Day Weekend.
Nearly every business in downtown Greenport, whether it is open or closed, currently has emblazoned somewhere on its façade the words “Hold Fast, Stay True Greenport NY.”
It’s an old nautical phrase that many sailors have tattooed on their knuckles, to remind them they can conquer any storm with steady resolve and sights set on their destination.
Now, as Greenport is about to enter a summer season rife with unknowns, this little downtown destination is a microcosm of the East End’s small towns. Local family-owned businesses are going to need incredible resolve if they are to last through to a better year.
With the Memorial Day Weekend kickoff to summer behind us, the East End’s destination downtowns have just one month to figure out how they can safely handle the expected summer crowds.
Many in the business community here in Greenport have advocated for solutions to social distancing that range from shutting down the few central blocks of the village to vehicles to accommodating outdoor dining in the village’s public spaces.
But businesses can’t make these changes alone. They need the help of government, which during the current state of emergency can issue executive orders, in the interest of public safety, to overcome a lot of usual red tape.
Greenport Business Improvement District President Rich Vandenburgh, the co-owner of the Greenport Harbor Brewing Co., presented the BID’s formal proposal to build platforms extending sidewalks on Main and Front streets several feet out into parallel parking stalls at the Greenport Village Board’s May 21 work session.
The BID put together the proposal with the pro bono help of SHoP Architects, which had been involved with the design of Greenport’s Mitchell Park, said Mr. Vandenburgh. Riverhead Building Supply is ready to give the village a substantial discount on materials and carpenters are eager to offer their services free of charge to help get downtown back on its feet.
The plan would be to build platforms extending the sidewalks into the parking stalls on the north side of Front Street from Third Street to Main Street, on the west side of Main Street from Claudio’s to Front Street, and on both sides of Main Street north of Front Street to Park Street. Planter boxes would serve as buffers between the platforms and the traffic, and access to fire hydrants would be preserved.
“Construction and installation are not going to take a long time,” said Mr. Vandenburgh, but, he added, if the village drags its feet at greenlighting the project, “it’s going to be a very difficult season…. Everybody understand what the alternative to this is, and it’s not pretty.”
Little Creek Oysters co-owner Ian Wile, who has been behind the “Hold Fast” campaign, has created a change.org petition asking the village to close Front Street, and perhaps Main Street, to traffic on Friday evenings, federal holidays and weekends. Nearly 1,000 people had signed the petition as of May 23.
At the May 21 work session, Greenport Mayor George Hubbard wasn’t impressed by the suggestions in the petition, calling the proposal “a logistical nightmare for us.”
Mr. Vandenburgh said the BID is aware of other proposals, but the one he brought to the board is one that can most easily be implemented in time for the height of the summer season.
“There may be some that don’t want to do it this way,” he said. “We view this as a process where the village has control over parking and can act quickly to make this happen.”
Much of the local retail economy had not yet been given the go-ahead to open by New York State when this issue went to press, but restaurant owners, who are currently serving take-out only, have already had to make major decisions about their summer operations.
“At this time, we have zero intentions of having indoor table or bar service at any of our restaurants throughout the summer,” said Marc LaMaina, owner of Lucharitos, in a May 4 message to the restaurant’s Facebook fans. “That may miraculously change. But for now….We will concentrate on the safety of our people, their families and our customers.”
Lucharitos was able to quickly pivot and has been at the forefront of takeout innovations during the lockdown this spring.
Other Greenport restaurants are just beginning to open up. Some, like Claudio’s and A Lure, are lucky to have ample waterfront dockage, allowing them to bring takeout orders dockside to boaters.
Little Creek Oysters, a former dockside bait shop tucked down at the dead end of First Street, opened up for takeout in late May, with a menu including crab rolls, chowder and oysters, along with market items like the makings for a smoked fish brunch, corn on the cob, dips and barbecue grilling butter.
“This building has stood through 140 years of joy and pain,” Little Creek posted on Instagram just before Memorial Day weekend. “We stand up again today to come to work, say hello to long ago friends and fresh faces. The flow is weird. The hang is short. But the sun is high and the water sparkles. Oysters are coming out of the bay again. You can help by playing along. Ordering ahead online helps keep everyone safer by reducing a line. We can’t let you sit down just yet (working on it!) And remember that the Village Code prohibits alcohol consumption in the park or streets. Have a picnic, stay safe, take photos for your time capsule. Someday we hope we can get to ‘Remember when…’”
Village Trustee Mary Bess Phillips said at the May 21 work session that she agreed with Mayor Hubbard that closing downtown to traffic on the weekends would be a nightmare, akin to having the village’s wildly popular Maritime Festival every weekend.
“There will be parking down residential streets, and there will be people racing to the ferry. It’s a safety issue for residents. They will tolerate parking, but speeding cars they won’t,” she said.
The work session was held at the Third Street Firehouse with everyone in attendance wearing masks and no audience — residents were asked to email the board if they had any questions.
Mr. Wile, of Little Creek, sent an emailed after hearing Mr. Hubbard’s comments to say the petition was an attempt to start a broader discussion about the future of the village’s business district.
“There’s a sum total of zero coming from the board,” he wrote. “Someone had to begin it.”
“I think people across the board are extremely stressed and very frustrated,” said Mr. Vandenburgh. “The BID understands you guys are put in a position where you have to make very difficult decisions. There are going to be some vocal people upset whatever decision you make.”
He added that Theodore Roosevelt had once said that the best decision to make is the right decision and the second best decision to make is the wrong decision.
“The worst decision to make is no decision at all,” he said. “The BID board members encourage you to take a strong courageous step.”
The board is expected to bring up the matter again at its regular meeting this Thursday, May 27 at 7 p.m. at the Third Street Firehouse.
Other business owners are urging the community to write the village board before that meeting in support of the BID’s plan.
“Last night we watched in disbelief at the disconnect of the Village of Greenport,” said Kassata Bollman, co-owner of Bruce & Son and a founding member of the Hold Fast Greenport Facebook group in a letter to the board shared Friday. “If it wasn’t for Ian Wile creating a petition for a reopening plan of action weeks ago, you wouldn’t have anything on the table.”
“The BID has stepped up and reached out to all of us for insight,” she added. “We gave them our ideas and they created an excellent plan of action. Rich Vandenburgh presented that plan to you in a clear and concise way. He struggled to even get feedback from any of you on this plan. Meanwhile, you all have given us nothing in the way of a reopening plan.”