Once adversaries, Greenport lighthouse and seaport museum organizations join forces

02/23/2011 7:00 AM |

COURTESY PHOTO | East End Seaport Museum and Marine Foundation board members (from left) Dick Gillooly, treasurer; Ted Webb, chairman; Mike Kurz, vice chairman; and Karen Doherty, secretary.

They’re not calling it a merger, but the now defunct East End Lighthouses group has joined forces with the East End Seaport Museum and Marine Foundation after a lengthy and once rancorous relationship.

“This was the right thing to do at the right time,” foundation board chairman Ted Webb said about the unification, an effort under way for about eight months.

At the base of the split was a difference over lighthouses, and lighthouses are also the basis of the reconciliation.

In 2000, East End Seaport Museum and Marine Foundation founder Merlon Wiggin wanted the organization to focus more on acquisition and restoration of lighthouses being decommissioned by the federal government. Others on the foundation board wanted to split their attention between maintenance of Long Beach Bar “Bug” Light in Orient and other maritime projects.

With a focus on the Plum Island lighthouse, Mr. Wiggin formed East End Lighthouses, an arm of the United States Lighthouse Society. There were multiple skirmishes among members of the two groups. That erupted into a 2004 lawsuit over which group would maintain and have access to Bug Light. The State Supreme Court settled the issue with East End Lighthouses taking responsibility for major repairs and improvements, while the foundation was to be responsible for routine maintenance. The settlement included giving East End Lighthouses access to the structure six days a year.

There have been changes in both organization’s leadership, and those currently serving on the two boards could see only positive reasons for ending the schism.

“It’s a triple win for the community, our mission and the organization,” foundation board chairman Ted Webb said.

“We’re carrying on the legacy he left,” Mr. Webb said about Mr. Wiggin, who died in 2008. Mr. Wiggin was the driving force behind the reconstruction of Bug Light in 1990.

Former EEL board member Michael Kurz agreed. He’s now vice chairman of the foundation board and due to assume the chairman’s post next year.

The vote to unify the two groups was unanimous, Mr. Kurz said. He pointed out that the reason EEL chose to dissolve rather than merge was to avoid the expense and entanglement of lawyers.

A newly constituted board of directors has grown from 12 to 18 members, including five members of the East End Lighthouses board. The EEL treasury of approximately $140,000 is being combined with the foundation’s $250,000. The directors said that will be enough for maritime educational maritime and lighthouse acquisition, maintenance and restoration.

The combined membership is about 400. The budget for this year is $177,000.

The goal of EEL is to eventually acquire and restore the Plum Island lighthouse on the island’s western shore. EEL lighthouse cruises will become a major endeavor and fundraising effort for the foundation. The cruises will be enhanced by starting with a tour of the East End Seaport Museum.

The board also hopes to extend a pier around Bug Light to make it more accessible to visitors. The rock formation around the lighthouse has eroded in recent years and made getting onto the tiny island difficult. The board hopes to complete that work in time for September’s Maritime Festival, the foundation’s largest fund-raising event.

Last year the group began to weed out some of the festival’s nonmaritime activities that have come to dominate the event. That effort will continue this year, said  foundation treasurer Dick Gillooly.

While vendors are vital to making the festival profitable, more activities like last year’s wooden boat races are needed, Mr. Webb added.

A new exhibit of nine wooden handcrafted ship models will be on display at the museum this summer with the former maritime display moving to the Port Jefferson Children’s Museum.

The board is hunting for a volunteer to care for its aquarium, which houses a wide array of local fish. And plans are already under way for the summer children’s educational program at the museum.

“We’re doing less and less paying,” using volunteers, Mr. Webb said. The organization employs one part-time staffer and will have another two working part-time during summer months. Board members are also looking for a summer intern to lead the effort to categorize the museum’s holdings.

“We want to be a resource for people,” Mr. Webb said.

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