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Anchor Society Gets a ‘Vote of Confidence’

Thu, 12/30/2021 - 09:41
Bess Rattray, founder of the Anchor Society of East Hamptons, hopes the organization will eventually be able to establish a general store in downtown East Hampton.
Durell Godfrey

The Village Preservation Society of East Hampton has awarded a $5,000 grant to the Anchor Society of East Hampton, a recently formed nonprofit organization seeking to open a year-round general store in the village that would offer daily necessities as well as a haven for neighbors to meet and greet each other.

The grant, which was made public last week, is “a real vote of confidence,” said Bess Rattray, an editor of the Star’s East magazine who founded the society over the summer.

“The outpouring of enthusiasm for the Anchor Society project has been absolutely wild. We’ve had a really stunning reaction. We went from zero to 100 in about three seconds, flat!” she wrote in an email, explaining how quickly the organization amassed around 80 volunteers.

According to Mary Busch, a trustee of the preservation society, its grants are awarded to “organizations or initiatives that we feel help to preserve and protect the historic, neighborhood character of our community.” The Anchor Society’s plan, she said, for a general store “would help knit local needs to local business again.”

Ms. Rattray regards the funds as seed money for her organization, that will help toward expenses of day-to-day operations, such as hosting its anchor-society.com website (which will go live in January) and initiating a fund-raising campaign.

The Anchor Society took root following a column Ms. Rattray wrote for The Star in June, in which she described a longstanding desire to preserve the culture of Old East Hampton. “My first idea, when I was a teen back in the Reagan Era, was that someone in power should set up a system of substantial tax breaks or tax rebates for mom-and-pop shops that served some useful purpose, to prevent the entire area of ‘Upstreet’ being turned into a homogenized zone of chain stores . . . but none of us anticipated what eventually transpired: that Main Street would become a depressing desert of elite international designer brands. Gucci Gulch. That Italian and French fashion conglomerates (which are still chains!) would use shopfronts that once housed modest kids’ shoe emporiums or stationers not so much for retail but, in effect, as positional marketing. Stores as billboards. Useless to most of the community. Nearly useless even to the very rich.”

Citing a similar project in Nantucket, Mass., called ReMain Nantucket — a philanthropic organization focused on preserving the resort town’s quaint downtown — Ms. Rattray emphasized that her group’s intention is to “interrupt the sky-high-rental-cost cycle by buying a building.” Several buildings have been priced on Main Street and Newtown Lane anywhere from $3 million to $7 million, she said.

Many of the Anchor Society’s volunteers are involved in commercial real estate, with “some folks getting involved who have been movers behind major preservation efforts in New York City,” she noted, and those people say that fund-raising to buy a building will be the easy part. “We do not think we’ll have trouble raising enough money to buy the building,” she said.

From there on, the Anchor Society would act as “the benevolent landlord,” Ms. Rattray explained, and lease it for a minuscule sum to an operator deemed a worthy business, essential to a healthy downtown retail scene.

That was precisely the model used by ReMain Nantucket, which was founded in 2007 and spearheaded by Wendy Schmidt, the wife of Eric Schmidt, the executive chairman of Google, whose current worth is estimated around $23 billion. Through a range of strategic real estate investments and community initiatives, the group has claimed success in revitalizing Nantucket’s downtown and supporting its year-round economy.

Ms. Rattray is determined that East Hampton will be equally successful, pointing to the philanthropic efforts behind the Sag Harbor Cinema and Guild Hall rebuilds. Assemblyman Fred Thiele has informed her, she said, that should the Anchor Society purchase a building in the Main Street Historic District, it would receive his help and the help of other local politicians to get Community Preservation Fund money to help cover costs.

“Sag Harbor Cinema got $4 million in Community Preservation Fund money,” Ms. Rattray recalled. “This isn’t just a pipe dream. This is going to happen.”

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