“How are the beaches?”
It’s the first question being put to employees working the phones at Montauk’s beachfront motels this spring. The good news is that reservations are strong. The scary news is that a strong tourist season has such a shaky foundation.
Resorts report that concern over the loss of sand and dunes caused by Hurricane Sandy and the string of northeasters that followed has sparked increased interest in Montauk as a summer destination. At the same time, the question lays bare an underlying trepidation.
“It’s what’s on everyone’s minds,” said Steve Kalimnios, owner of the Royal Atlantic Resorts. “ ‘How are the beaches out there? Are we going to have a summer in Montauk, or are we going to have to move on to another area?’ ” But there’s been a different sort of call this year, Mr. Kalimnios said. While it’s still too early to tell, he said, the demand for reservations may reflect an influx of people looking into Montauk as an alternative to destinations they frequented prior to Sandy, in western Long Island, New Jersey, and even Pennsylvania.
Colin Wood, general manager of the Atlantic Terrace on the eastern end of Montauk’s downtown beachfront, agreed: “The big impression is, people want to know how the beach is.” Mr. Wood said the number of first-time guests is up, plus visitors who, in a sense, have lost their summer for lack of sand. “We’re hearing from New Jersey,” he said.
Mr. Kalimnios concurred: “The majority of our clientele has been New York City, Long Island, and Connecticut. That’s our client base. The appeal to the East End is the proximity to their homes. They don’t have to hop on a plane. If we lose that. . . .” He trailed off, leaving an uncertain future dangling.
“We keep assuring them that we have a beach,” he said, albeit a beach largely manufactured by the hotel owners themselves “with no help from anyone else. It’s mind-blowing we’re in this position. We are supporting the whole community.”
The veteran hotelier said that while reservations indicate that Montauk continues to be seen as a sunny and sandy summer destination, what his reservationists are hearing underscores what he’s been telling the ad hoc town committee charged with recommending a beach-saving strategy.
“If we lose that, [vacationers] will have to move on to another area. This is my worst fear coming to pass,” Mr. Kalimnios said.
The Royal Atlantic resorts and their neighboring hotels and condos along what is known in Montauk as Motel Row have spent hundreds of thousands of dollars replacing sand in recent years. Mr. Kalimnios has weathered criticism for taking it upon himself to install sand-covered concrete rings as an emergency revetment. He has called upon East Hampton Town, or at least the Montauk business community in cooperation with the town, to contribute to the cost of keeping sand on the hamlet’s most popular beaches, but the approach has gained little traction so far.
“We will be busy,” said Laraine Creegan with an accent on “busy” as if what she expected was more akin to a vacationing tidal wave.
She is the director of the Montauk Chamber of Commerce. “Montauk has been discovered,” she said, “and there have been issues with New Jersey and farther west on Long Island.” As a destination, Ms. Creegan said, the easternmost hamlet on the South Fork fits within the two-hour-drive limit that most vacationers place on a two or three-day getaway.
The chamber director agreed that while the search for less eroded beaches was attracting business, it also proved the need to keep them in place. “The beaches are a big draw, very critical to Montauk, not just for the businesses but for the people who live here year round. If we are offered millions of dollars because of the studies and don’t take it, we’d be crazy.”
She was referring to the possibility that Montauk’s downtown beaches are eligible for federal dollars by virtue of their inclusion in the Army Corps of Engineers’ Fire Island to Montauk Reformulation Study. The study, now decades in the making, seeks to tailor-make strategies for protecting beaches and beachfront properties for each community in its range.
Ms. Creegan reflected upon the decision, made in the wake of the 1938 Hurricane, to move Montauk’s downtown from the shores of Fort Pond Bay to where it is now — not a good one in hindsight, she observed.
“If it has to be a tax district [to create a fund to rebuild eroded beaches], then that’s what we’re going to have to do,” she said. “We’re not going to let businesses fall into the ocean. Everyone who owns property here has to come to grips with it, not take it lightly. It has to be a concerted effort, and we can’t put it off.”
The town awaits the Army Corps’ decision as to whether Montauk’s downtown beaches should be included on a list of areas to be protected using federal dollars in a manner that has yet to be designed. Town Supervisor Bill Wilkinson said yesterday that he was informed on Monday by Representative Timothy Bishop’s office that release of the Corps’ interim report on eligibility was imminent.
If Montauk gets the go-ahead, the supervisor said, the Corps’ project would be undertaken in two phases. The first would be sand replenishment. The second would be a strategy for maintaining the beach in the future.
The town board recently decided to amend the Local Waterfront Revitalization Plan in order to consider short-term protective measures.