Suffolk County Executive Steve Bellone is restoring funding to keep the shelves stocked at the historic 160-year-old St. James General Store.
Bellone’s decision Wednesday comes a week after the Council on Environmental Quality and the county’s historic trust committee passed resolutions appealing for funds, fearing the nation’s oldest continuously operating store might have nothing to sell to emporium visitors.
They expressed similar concerns for the shop inside the Big Duck, Suffolk’s roadside architectural landmark in Flanders that also sells goods.
“I’m just relieved and delighted,” said Mary Ann Spencer, the historic trust committee member who first raised the funding issue for the store that first opened in 1857. “It may have been an oversight or misunderstanding. But we know there have been complaints from people, who go there all the time and have already seen a change.”
Eric Naughton, county budget director, said the administration was changing a resolution already filed with the county legislature to add $100,000 to the stores’ funding from the hotel/motel tax, which brought in $500,000 more than the $11.5 million originally expected. That resolution provides funding for a variety of community-based contract agencies.
“I don’t think there was ever an intent to put the store or the Big Duck at risk,” said Legis. Kara Hahn (D-Setauket) parks committee chairwoman. “But I’m glad this clears it up, so it’s not open to question.”
Legis. Robert Trotta (R-Fort Salonga), said Bellone’s “so used to taking money in fees and taxes, he didn’t did realize in a store, you actually have to provide a product.”
The problem first arose in the fall when staff requested $125,000 — the same as in 2018 — to replenish inventory at both sites, which are part of the National Register of Historic Places and draw thousands of visitors annually.
Several lawmakers say sales at both stores take in more than 2 ½ times the amount the county spends on merchandise, and last year brought in $400,000 in revenue that went directly to the county’s general fund. However, Bellone’s 2019 budget had only $29,000 for stocking inventory without lowering revenue estimates. Bellone aides originally said the store had enough inventory to last well into the year.
“All you have to do is look at the returns,” said Legis. Leslie Kennedy (R-Nesconset), referring to the profit the store generates. “I’m glad they made the wise decision.”
Community members also gave strong backing for the store. Sonja Bellem started a Facebook page called “Friends of St. James General Store” to rally support for the landmark. “I’m overjoyed,” said Bellem, who grew up in St. James and now lives in Stony Brook. “It’s a part of our life, not just a tourist attraction. For us, it’s a real general store. We shop in there for books, candy, other things all the time.”