Along New York Avenue in Sound Beach, before rows of storefronts and restaurant spaces — some filled, others not — thousands gathered on Saturday, April 22, for the 2nd annual Sound Beach Spring Festival and Street Fair.
The event featured dozens of local businesses and merchants tabling outside, along with food stands, face painting, music and other festivities.
The annual festival is hosted by the Rocky Point Sound Beach Chamber of Commerce, an organization founded in 2018 to draw businesses and economic development into the neighboring hamlets.
Gary Pollakusky, president and executive director of RPSBCC, said there was a two-year gap in the first and second festivals due to COVID-19. With public health concerns abating, the chamber picked up where it had left off before the pandemic.
“We had, I’d say, over 65 vendors, and we had thousands of people come through, all seeing for the first time some of the new businesses in Sound Beach,” he said.
Bea Ruberto is president of the Sound Beach Civic Association, the leading advocacy group representing the hamlet’s roughly 7,000 residents. She has been a leader in raising awareness for this private beach community.
“One of the things that we as a civic have tried to do for years is make people aware that we exist, make our representatives aware that we exist,” she said.
To do that, Ruberto has been forceful in distinguishing Sound Beach for its unique history and local identity. She authored “Sound Beach: Our Town, Our Story,” which was recently adapted into the documentary film, “The History Upon Our Shores: Sound Beach, NY.”
The historical uniqueness of Sound Beach established, Ruberto has her sights on the future. She said the annual spring festival represents a vital organ in drawing attention to the area.
“I love it because it brings people outside of Sound Beach into Sound Beach,” she said. “We want people to get to know about our community.”
Though several restaurants and merchants are in business, the commercial strip is a ways away from a fully formed, traditional main street. That, Pollakusky said, will require additional advocacy work to keep occupants of the storefronts commercially viable.
“Seeing businesses come and go is heartbreaking sometimes because those are families that are local and that are losing their livelihoods,” he said. “To see a business that did everything that it could to survive and then fail, it’s heartbreaking.”
Pollakusky indicated that countering these trends will take time and effort from local organizations and government. He outlined his aspirations for the hamlet.
“I’d like to see that our storefronts are filled,” he said. “I’d like to see that people want to come to Sound Beach to live and to patronize our businesses.” The chamber president added, “I’d like to see that we have a robust business community that is self-sustaining.”
Putting this vision into action is not so cut and dry. Consistently, Sound Beach has competed for and lost out on limited grant funding against established downtown districts also debilitated by the pandemic.
The commercial district’s small size is another limiting factor, cutting the hamlet off from certain types of grants.
“Sound Beach does not have a downtown,” Ruberto said. “We have two commercial nodes. Therefore, a lot of the downtown revitalization grant funding we can’t have.” The civic president added, “That has to be fixed.”
The Sound Beach commercial district is currently zoned J-2, a general business zoning classification typical for retail spaces. For Sound Beach to qualify for downtown revitalization funding, the Town of Brookhaven would have to rezone the hamlet to J-6, a Main Street Business classification.
Brookhaven Councilwoman Jane Bonner (R-Rocky Point) represents Sound Beach on the Town Board. Reached by phone, she commented on the difficulties of Sound Beach making use of those granting opportunities, stressing that Suffolk County should consider easing the criteria for qualification.
“Those funds are hard to come by,” she said. “I think the onus is on the county in being a little more flexible” in dispersing downtown revitalization funds.
Currently, Sound Beach has much of the look and feel of a traditional downtown despite lacking the zoning classification of one. Bonner nonetheless remained open to the proposal to rezone the commercial district to J-6, potentially giving the hamlet a proper downtown and opening it to grants.
“If any business owner wanted to come in to become J-6, it’s certainly something that we would obviously entertain,” the councilwoman said.
The U.S. Census Bureau indicates that Sound Beach’s population shrunk by more than 2.5% between 2010 and 2020. This population decline is comparable to those of neighboring hamlets in the area, including Rocky Point, Miller Place and Mount Sinai.
Dorothy Cavalier, legislative aide to Suffolk County Legislator Sarah Anker (D-Mount Sinai), is running to fill the seat of her boss this November as Anker is term limited.
The candidate remarked upon the need for a larger governmental initiative to return small businesses to the area and keep residents from leaving the county for the Sun Belt.
“We’re losing a lot of people to Down South and other places, and we really need to figure out how to get them to stay here,” Cavalier said. “We need to get the small businesses back here because once we get the businesses to come back, the people will follow. They’ll stay.”
In the meantime, Bonner emphasized that the businesses in Sound Beach are still recovering from the aftermath of the pandemic. To support those businesses, she encouraged the community to continue patronizing local mom-and-pops in their hour of need.
“The pandemic really brought a lot of people to their knees financially, and our small businesses are the ones that suffered the most,” she said. “That’s why we have to invest with our dollars, to shop locally and support them.”