The Sag Harbor Cinema Arts Center will always be a cinema, will always be affordable and will always carry its iconic art deco neon sign, after the Southampton Town Board unanimously approved the purchase of $4 million in easements on the property Oct. 23.
The front portion of the building was destroyed in a fire in December of 2016, and the property, formerly a commercial theater, has since been purchased by a community non-profit, the Sag Harbor Cinema Arts Center, which hopes to rebuild the theater and keep it open to the community.
The town is purchasing a restricted use easement and a façade easement on the property using its Community Preservation Fund, which can be used for historic preservation.
The building, which has been used as a cinema for more than 100 years, is in the middle of the Sag Harbor Village Historic District, and is listed on the National Register of Historic Places as a contributing property to that historic district.
According to the town’s CPF administrator, Mary Wilson, the easements restrict the property’s use to “cinema arts and related uses,” though 25 percent of the property can be used for café, gallery and gift shop space related to the primary use.
The easements also require tickets to events at the theater to remain affordable, with a “schedule of rates approved by the town board every year that cannot exceed 80 percent of cinema prices within the town,” said Ms. Wilson at a public hearing before the Oct. 23 board vote.
Ms. Wilson added that the easement requires the façade of the building, which is currently being reconstructed to replicate the original façade, remain the same, and any changes or repairs to the façade must be reviewed by the town.
The neon sign (itself a reconstruction of an earlier sign) simply bearing the words “Sag Harbor” was salvaged from the fire, has been repaired and is awaiting reinstallation on the building.
Town board members spoke passionately about their support for the theater before casting their unanimous “yes” vote.
“I think it is not only an appropriate use of CPF funds but an excellent use of CPF funds,” said Town Supervisor Jay Schneiderman. “This is an iconic historic building, often photographed, often painted and referred to. We refer to Sag Harbor so often as an iconic downtown…everybody wants their downtown to look like Sag Harbor. This is part of the reason, this building.”
“Keep it affordable, make it in perpetuity,” he said. “It’s not just about open space, the CPF…we probably don’t spend enough on historic preservation. It’s part of our community character, who we are as a community.”
Mr. Schneiderman added that the $4 million purchase “doesn’t break the bank.”
Councilman Tommy John Schiavoni, a lifelong Sag Harbor resident and member of the Sag Harbor Fire Department, co-sponsored the legislation.
“We’ve had large fires in Sag Harbor and this one was bad. It was blowing 25 miles per hour and it was 15 degrees,” he said. “A hole was blown in the side of Sag Harbor. It was devastating for the community.”
Mr. Schiavoni thanked members of the Sag Harbor Partnership, which spearheaded the effort to purchase the cinema property, for their efforts.
“This is in the center of a federally designated historic district,” he added. “I went to this theater as a kid, and I hope my children and their children and many generations to come, regionally, to this theater.”
Councilwoman Christine Scalera said there is precedent for this use of CPF funds — a miniature golf pavilion and winter ice skating rink on County Road 39 in Southampton has also been kept affordable through the use of CPF funds.
“It’s used by the community, and been a cornerstone of things for them to do,” she said.
“I love the affordable component,” agreed Councilwoman Julie Lofstad. “It’s expensive to go out anywhere here. If there’s a place we can go and see a movie for under $10, that’s great. I appreciate the out-of-the box programming, and that it will give kids something to do on a Friday night.”
“The intent of this legislation was to preserve community,” said Councilman John Bouvier. “You went through a lot in Sag Harbor. This is an iconic building. History is central to Sag Harbor.”
Members of the Sag Harbor Partnership were quick to thank the board members in a statement Wednesday morning.
“Each spoke so beautifully about their support for the easements and of the Cinema, Supervisor Schneiderman emphasizing what we have held so dear: the fact that our efforts are based on Community Preservation itself,” they wrote. “These easements have now become a decisive part of this effort for our East End community. This purchase and the Empire State Development grant received a year ago are the largest contributions towards the Cinema we’ve received to date.”
“We also want to recognize CPF Program Manager Mary Wilson, who we know was instrumental in working out the easements on our behalf and on behalf of the Town, and to give particular acknowledgment to New York State First Assemblyman Fred Thiele, without whom there would be no CPF, and whose visionary legislation has protected so much of the place we love,” they added. “It’s hard to express how much this generosity means to us, but we will all sleep better knowing that this means that the Cinema will remain a Cinema, with its beloved sign and façade intact, a place for people of all ages from our entire area to be together and enjoy for generations to come.”