Anchor Society of East Hampton members, Steven, Alex and Lisa Frohlich, Susan Nieland and Anchor Society Founder Bess Rattray split up into groups and toured Main Street, Newtown Lane, Park Place, the Circle and commercial alleyways in East Hampton Village on Saturday. With clipboard in hand, they gathered information about how Village commercial buildings and stores are being utilized. The last stop was The Sweet Spot on Newtown Lane for coffee, hot chocolate and pastries. RICHARD LEWIN
As the new Greater East Hampton Chamber of Commerce tries to find ways to drum up more business for the stores that will be open in the dead of winter in East Hampton Village this winter, another local group of community-minded volunteers is working on finding a way to keep more storefronts open next winter.
The Anchor Society, as the group is known, is in search of a few good shops, vacated for the winter months, that they hope to help locally-based businesses “pop up” in just for the offseason months — an arrangement they see as a win-win-win: for the tenant, the local business and the community as a whole.
“We realized that like clockwork there is a chunk of stores that leave after Labor Day and don’t come back until May,” said Donna McDonald, who owns Park Place Liquors and a cluster of the commercial buildings in the downtown. “I had this idea — it was not an original idea — that we have these stores empty during the winter, couldn’t we do pop-ups where locals could sell stuff that people might actually come to town to purchase.”
McDonald took the idea to the committee of business owners that the village government had formed in 2022 to work on revitalizing the downtown and was met with applause. She took the idea to Bess Rattray, who founded the Anchor Society the year before, with the same goal of making the downtown a community hub again, and the effort was quickly in motion.
With the help of landlords like McDonald, the group has already drafted the paperwork for sub-leases, guidance on insurance, protocols for overseeing the move-in and move-out of the pop-up tenant and has been pounding the pavement to find willing seasonal tenants and landlords to play host.
The goal is to muster five stores for the winter of 2024-25 that would be able to host pop-ups, though Rattray and McDonald say they will settle for two or three to get started.
“We’ve said the goal is five because we think that’s the number you will need for it to have an impact on the feel of the village,” Rattray said. “We’ve had about 20 businesses say they’re interested. Of course, some might have needs that we can matchmake with spaces, but people are interested and we think we’ll have the shops and be able to fill them.”
The group thinks it has its first eager host. Alice + Olivia owner Stacey Bendet has told the group that they can count on her Main Street storefront — which she empties of merchandise each fall — for the first pop-up venue next winter and has put a team of her staff on working out the details with the landlord and the Anchor Society, McDonald said.
The group is also doing extensive research to inform the pop-up effort, and others.
Last weekend, about a dozen Anchor Society volunteers, conducted the third annual survey of the village’s downtown businesses — cataloging each storefront in the business district and its occupancy status, types of goods sold and various other details about the business.
They are also doing community surveys, talking to residents about shopping habits, how East Hampton stacks up against other downtowns, like Sag Harbor and Southampton, what they think the community needs and what would draw their attention — and land on their daily schedule.
“We’ve heard a lot of what people say they want, but we have to discern what will actually bring them to town,” McDonald said. “You can ask people how many pizza toppings they want to be able to choose from, and they’ll say more, more, more, but in the end they just order pepperoni. We are going to have more vendors than we’ll have viable spaces, so we need to careful to select businesses that will have the highest likelihood of success.”
The work is intended to both guide the pop-up project — they want to be careful not to bring in vendors that duplicate existing stores open in winter — and also as a general boon to the understanding of the downtown business district from all angles.
“Nobody else has done this kind of thing, we think it will be very interesting and helpful for everybody — landlords, people starting businesses, for the village,” Rattray said.
The Anchor Society was actually born out of an entirely separate idea for trying to bring the year-round, local community back to the village’s streets. Rattray seized on an article in East magazine that coined the term “luxury blight” for downtowns in resort communities where soaring real estate prices and rents left a business district awash in high-end retail brands geared toward wealthy visitors and short on the sort of goods and services that draw the members of the community in the offseason.
She spoke with business leaders in other communities to hear what they had done to tackle the problem and found that some, like Nantucket, have turned to nonprofit organizations that purchase commercial buildings with privately donated funds and choose tenants not based on the ability to pay high rents, but on the benefit to the community of the business.
“We wanted to do the same thing here and thought we would start with a general store — something that would be a destination for everybody,” she said. “We are hoping for a building with some historic provenance, partly in hopes we could get some [Community Preservation Fund] assistance but also because we think the old-timey feel is going to add to the atmosphere that will be a success.”
The interim effort to fill empty storefronts with magnet businesses has just as much potential she says. Rattray and McDonald said thrift shops, grab-and-go food, children’s clothing, gifts and art retailers are some of the likely contenders and storefronts that are on the main thoroughfares of the downtown, and preferably neighboring other stores open year-round, are the ideal for pop-up hosts.
McDonald says she understands the Anchor Society’s role will have to be an active one in the whole effort that will require a substantial crew of volunteer help, maintain a constant bridge between landlords, the main tenants and the pop-ups.
“There will have to be a lot of hand-holding, we know that,” she said. “It won’t be perfect — nothing is when you are trying to solve a problem that is not easy to solve. But we are going to give it the highest level of success on all fronts.”
The East Hampton Chamber of Commerce and the Anchor Society will be among the groups participating in the next Express Sessions panel discussion at noon on February 1 at Rowdy Hall in Amagansett, which will focus on how the business community might stir a little more life into the downtown in the wintertime.
One fine body…