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St. James General Store: Funding cuts a threat?

The St. James General Store in St. James

The St. James General Store in St. James is shown on Feb. 18, 2015.  Credit: David L. Pokress

The historic St. James General Store has been open for business without stop since 1857, but backers warn there’s not enough funding to buy merchandise to keep shelves full, threatening the quaint emporium.

A resolution from the county’s historic trust committee surfaced last Wednesday at the Council on Environmental Quality seeking money to replenish inventory so tourists and local residents can keep buying candy and souvenirs at the store, which is on the National Register of Historic Places.

They say the same problem has occurred at the gift shop at the Big Duck in Flanders, the prime example of roadside architecture in Suffolk. The council passed its own resolution pressing for more funding to buy stock for both landmarks.

The problem arose after store staffers in charge of stocking  requested $125,000 in the 2019 budget — the same as last year — to replenish inventory as it gets sold throughout the year to its thousands of visitors.

Several county lawmakers said sales at both county historical sites bring in 2½ times what the county spends on them and last year brought in about $400,000. The money goes directly to the county’s general fund.

Suffolk County Executive Steve Bellone included $29,000 in his proposed 2019 budget, without lowering the $400,000 projection of how much revenue sales would bring in.

Mary Ann Spencer, the CEQ member who raised the issue, warned the cut in county funding will reduce the inventory by 80 percent. “It doesn’t make a whole lot of sense since this is a moneymaker for the county,” said Spencer, also a member of the historic trust committee.

During budget deliberations in October, county parks officials told lawmakers the funding for the stores could be reduced because their prime season comes later in the year and existing inventory could last until summer.

Bellone’s version of the budget survived intact without a single change, after Democrats Sara Anker and William Lindsay III voted with Republicans to block a $1.5 million package of amendments. The proposed changes did not address the stores' funding.

“One of the things we boast about is that it is the country’s oldest general store in continuous operation,” said Legis. Kara Hahn (D-Setauket), chairwoman of the parks committee. “It’s a big draw for visitors and even people who live nearby. We are not going to let it shut down. That would be catastrophic.”

“The continued full funding of the St. James General Store is needed to keep this important cog in our historical community alive and functioning,” said Bev Tyler, a local historian who describes the store as “a treasure.” He and his family are partial to the store’s molasses pulls.

“Not receiving inventory very quickly means visitors will find desired items missing and some slow-moving items will be kept out just to keep shelves full or attractive,” Tyler said.

Ironically, Bellone as a county executive candidate came to the store’s rescue in 2011 when predecessor Steve Levy, a Republican, tried to cut seasonal funding for a part-time Santa Claus at the store. Bellone issued a $661 personal check to pay Santa’s salary.  

Eric Naughton, county budget director, maintains the store has enough inventory for the time being, though he could not detail how long its supplies will last.

Naughton said he had not talked with those who ran the stores. But he said the county parks commissioner was “comfortable” with the funding level, noting the store sold the most during the December holidays. Naughton said revenues from the hotel-motel tax could be earmarked later if necessary.

But Suffolk Legis. Robert Trotta (R-Fort Salonga), who is considering a run for county executive, said he wasn't comforted by Naughton’s assurances.

The store, Trotta said, “has survived the Civil War, hurricanes, suburban sprawl and the Great Depression yet may not be able to overcome the mismanagement of Steve Bellone.”

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