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New Hampton

I live in the Hamptons.  Some who read that will probably be envious of me.  This is a premier destination for so many – and so many more cannot even afford to come here.

For the local, however, living here is not as lovely as one might think, something that is probably true of most tourist areas.  It is far worse for me, because I have never loved the favorite pastimes of our tourists: sitting on the beach and fishing.  I kind of like boating, but sharing the waters with drunken tourists is problematic at best.

From a local perspective, the tourist business is a very mixed bag.  During the summer months, plus a few weekends on either side, the traffic is stifling, leading most of us to not venture out on the weekends at all.  Unending legions of lost drivers and city drivers only add to the melee.  Food and entertainment venues are too crowded to get into on the weekends and very expensive to boot.  Loud parties and thundering music at all hours is commonplace.

Once tourist season is over, things do not get that much better.  Sure, lots less traffic, but most of the food and entertainment is shut down.  For those businesses that struggle through the winter, well, they do not lower their prices because, well, they are struggling through the winter.  Want to put up family members in the now-mostly-empty motel?  Be prepared to pay $200 a night.  In Omaha, via a quick check online, an adult movie ticket is $5 for a matinee and $9.50 at night.  Here, they don’t know about matinees and you pay $12.50 at any time.  Forget about 3D movies.

The problem with the tourist business, as important as it is to us, is that the season is too short.  It is three months plus a handful of weekends.  To make your living in that environment, you need to scrape and gouge – and you still need a winter job.

The solution to this problem is, of course, to extend the season.  Really.  I mean it.  What if the season were nine months, instead of three?

Infrastructure could be built out more, of course.  Roads, utilities, and communications could and would be expanded to match the demand – as opposed to our current feast or famine approach or, more correctly, the prayer made by some that: if we don’t build it, they won’t come.  That prayer has gone unanswered for long decades.  They come anyway.

Naturally, as our sine wave business cycle flattened to more of a gentle curve and prices became more reasonable, locals would be more encouraged to come out of their holes and join in the fun.  Traffic, though heavier overall, would be easier to deal with because we could afford to widen the roads.

Still, how can we extend the season?  If the local economy is based on sun and sand, boats and fish, how can we be open in November?

Obviously, we would need to expand our offerings.  I would propose to do that through entertainment.

What you have to understand about the local entertainment industry, which as stated only caters to locals as a sideline, is that it is a by-product of our tourism industry, not the cause of it.  People do not come to The Hamptons for the fine dining – if it is – the nightclubs, or the trendy shopping.  Those businesses came here to take advantage of, in all ways possible, the tourists who were already coming here.

To extend the season, to create a place people want to come to, even when the sun is not shining and trousers are the uniform of the day, we need to create a real, versus parasitic, entertainment industry.  A draw all of its own.

Not possible?  Why not?  Do people go to Orlando because they enjoy marshland?

But Orlando is probably not the business model we want to emulate.  Theme parks are difficult to run year-round north of the Mason-Dixon.  No, the example we would want to follow is Branson, Missouri.

If you are not familiar with Branson, it is the entertainment capitol of the Midwest.  It is very popular with the Country Western crowd, but it is not exclusive to them.  The best description of Branson comes from Bart Simpson.  “It is just like Las Vegas, as run by Ned Flanders.”

I will leave you to Google the history for yourself.  The quick version goes something like this: Branson was a small river town, doing whatever small Missouri river towns did.  Somebody decided to build a theater for himself.  He was close to Springfield, not far away from Kansas City and St. Louis, so he would build his theater and put on shows all year.  No more long road trips and all the problems they cause.  People came; not many, but a few.  Eventually, somebody else decided to build their own theater down the road.  More people came.  So too did fast food, hotels, nightclubs, and restaurants.  More theaters, more other kinds of entertainment (Ripley’s, wax museums, …), followed by more hotels and everything else.  Rinse and repeat.

Most likely, The Hamptons is not a place to showcase Country Western talent, although I would not rule it out entirely.  But say some aging rock legend who already had one of his homes out here, tired of the rat race and the road shows, wanting to just settle down and make a living entertaining people – oh, let’s give him a fictitious name, like Billy Joel or something – say he decided to build himself a theater out here and put on nightly shows for nine months out of the year.  I think people would come.

Look at such a thing from Billy’s perspective.  He gets to play in the same theater every night, so no set-up or take-down, no roadies, no lengthy sound or light checks, same band, same crew, and the theater staff does this every night and is ready for anything.  He can use the same playlist every night or vary it to suit his tastes.  He gets to sleep in his own bed, eat in his own kitchen, and cavort with whatever friends and family he normally has.  He leaves his home no earlier than two hours before showtime and is home an hour after the curtain closes, tops.  He is probably not going to work seven nights a week, so he has some time to relax, though he might do two shows a night during the busy summer season.  During his three months off, he might make appearances, or even go on tour, but he might just go wherever and relax.  Naturally, with his fairly permanent band close at hand, he can go to the recording studio in the theater’s basement anytime he wants.

Yes, people would come to see Billy, our fictional rock god, but probably not enough people to base an economy on.  But when another rock god – let’s call him Steve Tyler, for lack of originality – builds his theater down the road, more people would come, with the hopes of seeing two gods in one trip.  Then some aging comedian – call him Jay Leno – decides he can create synergy with a comedy/variety show.  Other acts soon follow.  Naturally, as more acts and activities come, people decide to spend the night, so more hotels and restaurants.

Properly leveraged, this would complement the current tourism industry, not replace it.  Existing hotels and restaurants would be able to stay open eight months to maybe the whole year, charging lower prices, but making more money.  Summer would still be busier, but the workload would be more even throughout the year.

Still, there is the question of how and where to set this up.  After all, one of the major factors in making this area the way it is are property values.  Land is at a premium.  You want to build a new theater?  You have to knock something else down first.  Add to this the foot and road traffic you bring to wherever you build.  Where on Earth is an enterprising entertainer to go?

Let me introduce you to Sunrise Highway.  It is a two and three lane restricted access freeway that runs from somewhere near Kennedy Airport all the way out to a point about two miles east of my home, where the highway ends and great gobs of traffic are unceremoniously dumped onto local roads.  There is simply no more capacity to be added to the roads east of Sunrise and proposals to extend Sunrise into the east are routinely met with extreme hostility and possibly death threats.

So it is a good thing that I do not propose to build a tourist mecca out east.  There is no need to.  You see, there is something rather odd about the local incarnation of Sunrise Highway.  Built in the seventies, it has a very wide right-of-way, which means it could easily be widened into more lanes, should the need arise.  But it is the highway exits that are truly exceptional.  They are not the standard diamond exits, nor are they the merge-with-the-service-road-while-yelling-“Cannonball!” exits that are so prominent west of here.  For whatever reason, the Westhampton, Quogue, and Hampton Bays exits were all built as full-on cloverleaf exits, from one divided highway to another.  I can only assume that somebody, maybe Robert Moses, had big plans for us at one time.

The other great hope for our budding entertainment capitol comes from the land immediately surrounding these three exits – it is almost entirely undeveloped!  The land northwest of the Hampton Bays exit and the triangle formed by the other two exits and the Riverhead road are nearly devoid of anything but pine trees.  Add to this the land along the Riverhead road to Highway 105 and the land just past the southern terminus of County Road 111, which has been waiting patiently for the construction crews to return for more than forty years, and you have a major untapped resource, just begging for us to do something smart with it.  And lest anyone think that I am advocating despoiling the Pine Barrens – the local name for the run of scrub pine we have, with ecological overtones – I am only suggesting developing the land within two hundred yards of the existing roadways, giving us plenty of room to develop while leaving nearly all of the Pine Barrens untouched.  Really.  Look at a map.

Thus, it becomes possible to envision a world in which large gobs of people travel out to our New Hampton entertainment complex, to be entertained and help boost the local economy, with most of them not driving more than two minutes from Sunrise Highway.  Some of them will venture into the towns, of course, to take advantage of what will then become lower-cost food and lodging.  People will still come for the beach and the bays – indeed, more people will come on cloudy days than before, knowing that they will have other options if the weather turns bad.  The extra visitors will put little strain on local streets, while increased tax revenue would help us increase the capacity of the existing streets, making summers easier for all concerned.

Meanwhile, the local businesses will try to coax the new visitors to their existing establishments or they will move into the new developments – or perhaps they will do both.  Most of our local eateries would love a chance to open new locations.

The new hotels, being in a concentrated area, might well support a shuttle service, serving not only the three new areas, but also taking their clientele to the ocean beaches.  Once such a service is started, it might also serve the existing hotels, thereby reducing traffic while serving more people.

Reading back, I sound like a central planner.  I am not.  I do not want the Town of Southampton or Suffolk County to try to make this happen.  Instead, I would ask them to *let* such a thing happen, if people make the attempt.  Don’t get in the way.  Relax what we laughingly call our development process, so investors know they won’t have to wait five years before they are even allowed to break ground.  Give them some hope that they won’t lose their entire investment in a fit of bureaucratic muscle flexing.

As to what kind of entertainment our New Hampton would provide, it is anybody’s guess.  My suggestions above would probably work, but how would I know for sure.  My guess is, it would be a mistake to compete with Broadway and the other “classy” forms of entertainment that exist in Manhattan.  First of all, anyone interested in such options need only drive to Manhattan and Manhattanites are not going to drive out here for the things that exist right outside their door.  But there are four other boroughs, plus the surrounding suburbs, with millions of people of a slightly lesser class.  They should be the target for our new entertainers.

Problem is, it is the Manhattanites and the super-rich who largely control the local governments.  It is not that they really want to, but they pay millions in property taxes as it is and they mostly try to – and have the means to – protect themselves.  Still, they do not have that much effect on the local economy, other than the construction/renovation industry.  They have their mega-mansions, providing most of their needs for the few weeks they spend here each year, and they only venture out to a few golf courses, some very trendy boutiques and galleries, and a few very select entertainments.  My meaning is, if we do not bother them, they are unlikely to bother or stymie us.

The New Hampton concept is a viable method to dramatically boost our local economy, not because of the existing tourist trade – though it helps – but simply because of the underutilized capacity of three, possibly four, overbuilt highway exits and the undeveloped land immediately surrounding them.  It only needs someone with the contacts and the finesse – obviously not me – to make it a reality.  Southampton Town does not need to live with a perpetual boom/bust, ebb/flow economy, always only a bad season away from bankruptcy.  We can create a truly regional destination, much of it family-friendly, right here, to the betterment of all.

Here is hoping that others will agree.


Categories: Business
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