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Lori Baldassare

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People of all ages enjoy Heritage Park for its sizable number of amenities. Photo by Kyle Barr

A flash of green among the gray, the short hills that roll along the side of Route 25A in Mount Sinai are strewn with people. Men and women jog, kids scream and laugh playing baseball and soccer. Children run up those green hills, then fall and let themselves tumble down the gentle slopes. 

A mockup of what the park would look like upon completion. Image from Lori Baldassare

Some developers have talked about creating a “town square” for the hamlet of Mount Sinai, but for lovers of Heritage Park, there already is one.

“There it is, Heritage Park — it’s one of the most beautiful parks of its kind that I’ve ever seen,” said New York State Assemblyman Steve Englebright (D-Setauket). “It came together from the cooperation of so many wonderful people willing to pull together.”

Nearly 20 years ago, local residents became heated about plans to develop the site for the home improvement giant, Home Depot. The site, which was once a pumpkin farm, joined with other properties like the Davis Peach Farm in an agrarian setting. Decades of home development turned the area into small strips of business sandwiched in between residential neighborhoods.

Heritage Park went in the opposite direction. A successful agreement between Suffolk County and the Town of Brookhaven meant the county bought the site by using the Community Greenways Fund, while the town built the park amenities like the baseball and soccer fields. The nonprofit organization Heritage Trust continues to operate the park, along with Brookhaven town. The trust hosts multiple carnivals and other events throughout the year as a means of raising money. The trust also rents out the Heritage Center for public events. 

But more than that, the trust has become a lightning rod for Mount Sinai, and even well beyond. 

The history of Heritage

Very few dreams become reality, at least to specific designs.

But original plans for Heritage Park, known also as The Wedge, and mockups bear a striking resemblance to how the park has shaped up 20 years after those original designs. 

A contractor installs the irrigation system just north of where the playground is now located back in early 2003. Photo by Fred Drewes

Fred Drewes, a longtime park volunteer and Mount Sinai resident, originally came to the Mount Sinai Civic Association back in 1988 with the idea of a hamlet study, and the idea was resurrected in the late 1990s, co-chaired with then civic president Lori Baldassare. Within those designs, he proposed a park, one that would become the focal point for the North Shore that had once been McGovern Sod Farm. 

This was during a time when the rural past of the hamlet was being laid over with brick and concrete. One housing development after another changed the tenor of Mount Sinai. The last few farms on the south side of Route 25A started to close and look to sell their property, and a few big names started eyeing those parcels. 

“The development pattern of western Long Island was going to make it impossible for Mount Sinai to escape being visually damaged and swallowed up,” Englebright said.

Among the legal action taking place at the location of the Davis Peach Farm, one of those maligned developments was a potential Home Depot on a plot of land that had been a pumpkin and sod farm.

At the southern tip of The Wedge, a space of only about one acre that had commercial zoning, representatives of Home Depot approached the property owners who were looking to sell. The rest of the property was zoned residential.

Baldassare, who has spent the past 20 years as the on-and-off again Heritage Trust president, has long been in the trenches over the fate of The Wedge. Home Depot would end up the line in the sand for Mount Sinai residents. As civic president, she asked Drewes to revive his hamlet study and plan for a park. She also was a leader among residents campaigning against the home supply chain, getting people to tie green ribbons around their mailboxes all across the hamlet to show their support.

“We ended up competing for them with land,” Baldassare said. “We had thousands of ribbons up all over the place.”

The next task was to make sure, as Englebright put it, “the same thing didn’t come back in some virulent form.”

In 1999, the civic authored a proposal for Suffolk County to buy the parkland. Of course, in government, nothing is ever that simple.

A state, a county, a town, a civic

Rare is it that all levels of government from the top down work together on such a large project as was Heritage Park, and while it wasn’t all easy, the results stand.

Volunteers from Girl Scout Troop 004 help plant a garden in the fall of 2004 in what is now the Butterfly Triangle, though plantings later failed due to not breaking up the compacted soil. The same day, volunteers planted crocuses. Photo by Fred Drewes

Still, the process was grueling at times. Both Brookhaven town and the county wanted active recreation, namely baseball and soccer fields. The town, especially, wasn’t into designing passive space with ingredients of a walking path and playground, but mostly a space for, as Drewes called it, “free play.” He remembers the then town parks commissioner mentioning he would never use such a space for jogging, so close as it was to two major roads.

“The way the greenways program worked is they needed a partner to maintain it,” Baldassare said. “They weren’t willing to develop it, they needed a partner, and the county said they wanted a municipal partner, but the town was not willing to do all the things we wanted in the park.”

Before they were willing to sign on to the county, the town also wanted to have a civic partner.

The assemblyman came into the picture, agreeing with the civic about needing to maintain the heritage of the area. He said he reached out to his colleagues at the state, county and town levels to help open those conversations. 

One difficulty they encountered was finding funds to buy the particular section of The Wedge that was still zoned for commercial.

The property was owned by Vinny Bove, a local entrepreneur and developer. Englebright recalled him as a “rather rugged individual,” and didn’t expect that he would be such a kindred spirit. Speaking with him, he found Bove was more than willing to keep the property up for sale until the state could gather the funds for the civic to buy the property.

“His welcoming attitude and his willingness to embark on the journey of uncertainty that was worthy of the community’s heritage, made it possible,” Englebright said.

This first Smiley Face at Heritage Park was a display of 7,500 crocuses planted in the Fall of 2004. The present Smiley Face is a result of planting 2,250 daffodils in the fall of 2012 with the first daffodil Smiley Face blooming in spring of 2013. Photo by Fred Drewes

Of course, the next issue was that the civic had to be legally able to accept state funds, needing to be a 501(c)(3) nonprofit, categorized as a land trust. It was then the Heritage Trust was formed, which incorporated in 2000.

The past trust president and now treasurer recalls much haggling over which municipality would fork over the funds for which part of the project. After the section was designated for park, it would be years before the first shovels finally entered the ground in 2003 when it all started to come together.

The county would buy most of the land, with one section now owned by the trust. The town would build the walking paths and baseball and soccer fields, and town lawnmowers continue to maintain the space.

“All the voices were speaking of the green space,” Englebright said. “Just amazing loving work the parks department of the town invested itself into.”

20 years, 20 more

From a few baseball fields and passive green, the park grew. More state assembly grants and loads of private fundraising helped gather the money to build the barnlike structure that has become the Heritage Center, the main headquarters not just for the trust but also for  the civic groups and a gathering spot for other local groups and events.

Amy Satchell was a volunteer since almost the beginning, helping to fundraise for the center and installation of the playground, which went up years after the park was fully built. Every year around the holidays Satchell goes to help decorate the center and the large pine tree just outside its doors.

Heritage Center at Heritage Park is used by the trust for its events. Photo by Kyle Barr

“Many people had an idea that it would be the town center, the town square of Mount Sinai,” she said. “You can see now after all this time all the wonderful amenities that are provided.”

Drewes has seen more and more amenities come to the park, including his own idea for the now-annual parade of flags, a display of flags from nations across the world on the Avenue of America, a stretch of the walkway that encloses the park.

The longtime Mount Sinai resident, now 83, is retired. He can lean back on a park bench and look at all the work he and his civic compatriots have helped accomplish.

“I’m gratified and extremely happy that what we as citizens proposed and volunteers worked tirelessly to create is valued by so many people,” he said.

Suffolk County Legislator Sarah Anker (D-Mount Sinai) said she has seen the effectiveness of the project and has proposed a similar agreement for a spot in Middle Island. The location is the site of a now-demolished K-Mart across from Artist Lake along Middle Country Road. 

“It has inspired me to take the model and replicate it,” Anker said.

Baldassare said that as the park reaches its 20th year, very few things remain as part of the original design, with only a splash pad and a few other odds and ends left. For the trust, it means the end of an era, and the start of a new one.

Fundraising has always been a difficulty, with the trust having an annual budget of around $300,000, the members have to fundraise what they don’t get through sponsorships and grants almost all by themselves. These funds also help to pay the several part-time staffers the trust needs for its ongoing efforts.

“People think it must be taxpayer dollars that take care of the center, and it’s not, we always have to raise money,” Satchell said.

They host events every year like the spring and summer carnivals, but those are dependent on weather. The trust treasurer recalled one year that was incredibly lean because of adverse weather conditions during one of its main fundraising events.

The park always requires more volunteers and is looking for more ideas to take the park through the next 20 years. 

Though many who visit the park assume that it must have always been there, for the trust and its volunteers, that can only be a good thing.

“When people say that, for them, the park has always been there, that’s fantastic,” Satchell said. “We want it to be that anchor in the community that people think it’s always been there. I do hope it always will be.”

This article was amended Oct. 2 to change the captions within the pictures to better reflect what they present. Several pictures were changed to say they were taken by Fred Drewes.

Mount Sinai’s Heritage Park held its annual breakfast with Santa Sunday.

A buffet breakfast complete with eggs, Belgian waffles, bacon, sausage, bagels, fresh fruit, juice and hot beverages was served inside the Heritage Center as families waited to take a photo with Santa Claus. Each child also received a favor for attending one of the three sessions Dec. 10.

Following the full buffet breakfast, Johnny Whimple and the kids in attendance filled the room with Christmas spirit with a holiday music sing-along.

Non-perishable food donations were also collected during the event for a local food pantry.

Brookhaven Town Councilwoman Jane Bonner, left, and Supervisor Ed Romaine, right, present proclamations to Ann Becker, Lori Baldassare, Fred Drewes and Deirdre Dubato at the Mount Sinai Civic Association's 100th anniversary dinner. File photo by Desirée Keegan

In October, the Mount Sinai Civic Association celebrated its 100th anniversary and further cemented its role in providing the look, helping with the maintenance and ensuring the overall quality of life of the community. Considering its century-long list of accomplishments, the civic association is still going strong.

“The success of the civic association in terms of its longevity is a reflection of how much residents of Mount Sinai care about their community,” Mount Sinai Civic Association Vice President Brad Arrington, a member since 2004, said. “It’s a mechanism to have an input in the future of my community and a place I plan to stay in for quite a long time.”

For their tireless efforts and infinite contributions, the more than 180 members of the Mount Sinai Civic Association have been recognized as Times Beacon Record News Media’s People of the Year for 2016.

“The success of the civic association in terms of its longevity is a reflection of how much residents of Mount Sinai care about their community.”

— Brad Arrington

Made up of volunteers, the organization has been, and continues to be, built on local residents stepping forward and having a voice in shaping the place in which they live.

It all began on Oct. 5, 1916, when the civic association was founded as an offshoot of the Mount Sinai Taxpayers Association for the main purposes of obtaining better roads, improving conditions in Mount Sinai Harbor and figuring out ways to protect against fires, which would ultimately lead to the establishment of the Mount Sinai Volunteer Fire Department standing today.

The original officers elected at the first organizational meeting were Jacob Schratweiser, president; Philip C. Scherer, first vice president; William R. P. Van Pelt, secretary and Lorenzo H. Davis, treasurer.

They paved the way for decades’ worth of major civic issues that include successfully stopping the dredging of Mount Sinai Harbor in the 1960s, suing Brookhaven for overdevelopment to reduce the number of housing units built in 1996 and working with state, county and town officials to purchase and preserve “The Wedge” property as Heritage Park. Developers initially planned to construct a Home Depot where the park is today.

Members of the civic association work toward improving their community, protecting its coastal environment and, perhaps most importantly, protesting against overdevelopment to keep their hamlet quaint and suburban.

“We want to [continue] protecting the open space Mount Sinai has,” Mount Sinai Civic Association President Ann Becker said. “The woodlands, beach areas … preventing overdevelopment is [crucial] because that can also have negative impacts on taxes, quality of life and even things like crime.”

Becker, an active member since 1984, said she joined the organization because of the direct impact its work had on quality of life and families in the area.

Mount Sinai Civic Association President Ann Becker at a recent meeting. Photo by Kevin Redding

What initially prompted her involvement was the proposal for a giant commercial shopping center on the corner of Plymouth Avenue and Canal Road, right behind her home, which would have been inconsistent with the aesthetic of the primarily residential neighborhood. Naturally, there wasn’t a lot of support for the planned development, and so the public — through the civic association — rallied against it and the shopping center never came to be.

Becker said the civic association is always on the lookout for problems and concerns residents might have with the ultimate goal of working on behalf of everyone to reach the best possible outcome and make a difference.

Brookhaven Town Councilwoman Jane Bonner (C-Rocky Point), whose office is currently working closely with the civic on two developmental projects, called Becker “a force to be reckoned with.”

“She’s exactly what a civic leader needs to be,” the councilwoman said. “The Mount Sinai community is very fortunate that Ann and the group continue to step up to the plate. They are a great group of volunteers and it’s an honor and a privilege to work with them.”

Fred Drewes, one of the civic’s long-serving members, joined in 1970, feeling it was important to be an active participant in the community and give constructive suggestions to help develop the quality of it.

Drewes, with the help of fellow civic member Lori Baldassare, projected his vision of a “central” park to help bring people together and have a location for community activities. It didn’t take long before the civic purchased the almost-a-Home Depot parcel and developed Drewes’ “Ivory Tower” idea.

“There’s no doubt in my mind that the development of our hamlet,” he said, “has benefited from the input of members of the Mount Sinai Civic Association.”

Heritage Park was filled with the sights and sounds of Christmas as hundreds flocked to Heritage Park in Mount Sinai for the Heritage Trust’s annual Breakfast with Santa.

Families could sign up for one of three morning sessions Dec. 11 to enjoy a catered breakfast while waiting for Aw Snap Photobooth to take family photos with Saint Nick. Festive decorations filled the interior of the Heritage Center and a guitarist played holiday favorites while inviting children to sing and dance with him, and later, Father Christmas himself. Children were also given candy canes and small favors for participating in the sold-out event.

Some families came with non-perishable donations to be given to a local food pantry.

Brookhaven Town Councilwoman Jane Bonner, left, and Supervisor Ed Romaine, right, present proclamations to Ann Becker, Lori Baldassare, Fred Drewes and Deirdre Dubato. Photo by Desirée Keegan

The Mount Sinai Civic Association isn’t just a local organization — it’s an institution that has become part of the community’s fabric for the last 100 years.

On Oct. 6 at Willow Creek Golf & Country Club, the civic association celebrated its anniversary with its board, community members and local politicians.

Heritage Trust secretary Thomas Carbone speaks during the dinner. Photo by Desirée Keegan
Heritage Trust secretary Thomas Carbone speaks during the dinner. Photo by Desirée Keegan

“It’s an amazing milestone,” Mount Sinai Civic Association President Ann Becker said. “We’re impressed with how dedicated people have been, always stepping up in Mount Sinai. It’s been a concerted effort. We’ve had strong leadership. It’s a community that pulls together when there are problems and tries to resolve those issues.”

Incorporated Oct. 5, 1916, as an outgrowth of the Mount Sinai Taxpayers Association, its initial objective was to construct better roads, improve the conditions of Mount Sinai Harbor and adopt means to protect against fires.

“Over 100 years, some of those principles remain,” Brookhaven Town Supervisor Ed Romaine (R) said. “The civic works hard to protect this community, to ensure that the zoning, the look of this community stays as a majority of the people in this community wants it to. They work hard to protect the harbor, the environment, and they do a tremendous job.”

Over its history, the civic association has worked tirelessly on quality of life issues for the residents of Mount Sinai and Brookhaven Town. It worked to protect the area’s coastal environment, establish community parks and preserves and maintain a balanced level of development — including recreational facilities, privately owned housing, residential opportunities for seniors and support for schools. A completely volunteer-based organization, the civic has always depended on local residents to step forward and actively work toward improving the community, protecting the environment and protesting against overdevelopment.

With Becker now at the helm, the civic association continues to strive to better the community, and Councilwoman Jane Bonner (C-Rocky Point) said Becker is perfect for the job.

“Ann and her civic board are wonderful advocates for the tiny little hamlet of Mount Sinai,” she said, adding that her husband, John Sandusky, was born and raised in the area. “People like Ann, and others in this community, keep a watchful eye, are paying attention and have the best goals for Mount Sinai — to maintain its quaint look and charm.”

“Change never ends, nor does the desire to keep the place you call home special. I think the small things are the real success.”

— Lori Baldassare

During the 1960s and ’70s, the major civic issues included working to successfully stop the dredging of Mount Sinai Harbor, which was accomplished in the late 1960s, followed by the planning and management of Cedar Beach.

With a grant received from New York State with the help of Assemblyman Steve Englebright (D-Setauket), 355 trees were planted along Route 25A the same year to beautify the community.

“The work that they do in the community and the difference that they make in the quality of life in Mount Sinai; the civic sets an example for all other communities,” Englebright said. “This is a shining beacon of civic activism and accomplishment. The association has continuity, initiative and history. I go to other hamlets in my district and I tell them to visit Mount Sinai and its park to see what a hamlet and a community can do when it comes together.”

The grant was also used to help purchase the nearly one-acre property that is known as Heritage Park. Preventing the sale of “The Wedge” to developers who planned to construct a Home Depot was also made possible with the help of Sen. Ken LaValle (R-Port Jefferson), who persuaded the owner to donate the balance of the property.

In the 1990s, the civic started many of the community activities still supported through the 501(c)(3) nonprofit Heritage Trust Inc., though many have since expanded.

Honored at the anniversary ceremony were Lori Baldassare, Fred Drewes and Deirdre Dubato, who were and are all still involved in Heritage Trust and Heritage Park.

Baldassare, eight-year president of the Heritage Trust, is a founding director who has also been a civic member for decades.

The centennial cake. Photo by Desirée Keegan
The centennial cake. Photo by Desirée Keegan

“I do not think that anyone thinks that they are signing on for 20 years or more, it just happens one small project at a time,” she said. “Change never ends, nor does the desire to keep the place you call home special. I think the small things are the real success — planting trees along 25A, placing welcome signs, constructing an ambulance building to serve the community, start a Christmas Tree lighting event, influencing the aesthetics and naming for the Heritage Diner, and so much more. There is always just one more thing to do and I am so proud to live in a place that has a real sense of community.”

For Drewes, who landscaped Heritage Park, which Baldassare referred to as a community treasure, the evening turned out different than he’d envisioned.

“I thought the evening would focus on recognizing and celebrating 100 years of community work of the Mount Sinai Civic Association,” he said. “I felt thankful and honored to be recognized as part of the history of the civic association’s efforts to develop into a hamlet we could be proud to live in.”

Suffolk County Legislator Sarah Anker (D-Mount Sinai) said the hamlet needs to keep up the good work, making sure that the residents protect each other and address the worries and concerns of the community.

“We have to keep up the inspiration,” she said. “There’s so much more that we can do, but what’s most important it that we take care of what we have.”

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Santa’s been sticking around the Heritage Center in Mount Sinai for the last few days.

On Sunday, Santa paid a special visit to the park for its annual breakfast. Year after year families get a closer look at Santa. Lori Baldassare, President of Heritage Trust, says residents also bring nonperishable food items that are donated to local pantries.

Tuscany Gourmet Market provided a buffet breakfast, and families met with Santa and could receive a professional photo by Faraz and Patricia Zaidi from Aw Snap Booths from Selden. Children were also given food for Santa’s reindeer to help jolly ole St. Nick find his way around the neighborhood on Christmas day.

Baldassare started Breakfast with Santa 21 years ago when she was the president of the Mount Sinai Civic Association. The event was held in the Handlebar restaurant in Mount Sinai — the restaurant owners sold the property 2008. In 2003, when the park was still in it’s early construction phase, Baldassare left the civic association for Heritage Trust, and the event followed.

“The community place is the perfect place to hold the event because it was created to be the [community’s] gathering place,” Baldassare said. “It signifies the tradition of [a] community.”

Little kids dressed to impress at the Heritage Center’s annual Halloween Festival on Sunday, Oct. 25.

Residents could pick out and paint pumpkins, get their face painted, play Halloween-related games for prizes and make arts and crafts. They could also get a cupcake from Desserts on the Spot, a local food truck in Mount Sinai.

According to Lori Baldassare, president of the Mount Sinai Heritage Trust, members of Enterprise, the car rental service, volunteered to work at the event as part of their management training.

The Heritage Center began its Halloween festival almost 10 years ago. The event is one of several that helps the center raise money. Due to poor weather, it has been more difficult for the center to raise money this year, but aims to raise more money from future events that aren’t weather-dependent like the upcoming “The Class of Life,” a theatrical performance starring Paul Failla. The performance will take place on Friday Nov. 6, and is open to those who are 17-year-old and up.