North Fork set for influx of vacationers this summer

BARBARAELLEN KOCH FILE PHOTO | Summertime at Iron Pier Beach in Northville. The calm bay and Sound beaches are a big attraction for vacationing families with small children, says Islip resident David Cogliano.

Longtime Islip resident Dave Cogliano and his family, who have summered on Fire Island for the past seven years, now have their sights set on the North Fork for a season of beach bathing and barbecues.

As of now, the family is looking for houses in Mattituck or Jamesport.

“Rather than figuring out which homes [on Fire Island] have mold or damage, we decided to rent on the North Fork,” Mr. Cogliano said. “It’s beautiful. It’s different. I want to check it out.”

The Coglianos are not alone.

With Hurricane Sandy having devastated popular summer spots in the tri-state area, like Fire Island and several Jersey Shore communities, those in the local tourism and hospitality industries are preparing for what could be one of the busiest summer seasons on record. The North Fork’s infrastructure was largely unaffected by Sandy, in comparison to other locations, and the pricier Hamptons aren’t an option for most middle-income families eager to spend a week, a month or longer away from home.

By April, most Jersey Shore and Fire Island rentals have been leased, but ongoing reconstruction and a sharp drop in the number of available rentals has taken its toll.

Bob Hilton, executive director of the Jersey Shore Convention and Visitors Bureau, estimates that more than 50 percent of rentals were lost during Hurricane Sandy, which struck the Northeast Oct. 29. Mr. Hilton said some businesses have since been trying to make the best of a bad situation, but he freely admits certain pockets of the Jersey Shore cannot reopen as they had before the storm.

The situation is similar on Fire Island, where the Army Corps of Engineers just began removing the first piles of debris last month. Many homes on the barrier island will need to be demolished. In those that withstood the storm, concerns about mold or other structural damage are preventing some homeowners from renting out their properties at all this season, said Grace Corradino, a broker with Fire Island Living Real Estate.

BARBARAELLEN KOCH FILE PHOTO | Baiting Hollow farmer Jeff Rottkamp turning over a field for early sweet corn. North Fork tourism officials frequently highlight the region’s farms, shops and waterways.

Other issues, like spotty Internet and cellphone service and the decimation of dunes and beaches, are also deterring visitors, she said.

Meanwhile, at Colony Real Estate in Jamesport, the phones have been “ringing off the hook” with potential seasonal renters, said agent Dolores Peterson.

The company has already rented 10 summer homes this year, Ms. Peterson said, and business is not slowing down.

“It’s picked up quite a bit since last year,” she said. “People always ask how we made out during the hurricane. I tell them to come check it out. We were very lucky.”

Greenport Village Business Improvement District director Peter Clarke expects a tourism surge in his waterfront village this year.

“One of the things we tried to do before Christmas was let people know we are open for business, we have power and all of our stores aren’t destroyed,” Mr. Clarke said.

The village has a host of plans to prepare for the summer months. The BID is developing maps and signage to outline the business district for visitors, he said.

Village officials are currently working with the BID to develop a way to manage summer parking, according Mayor David Nyce. In March 2012, the board voted against installing parking meters downtown. Mr. Clarke said the BID plans to use additional signage to point visitors to the village’s ample municipal parking lots behind Front Street stores and on Adams Street.

It seems they’re right to be preparing ahead of time for more visitors than in years past.

“Most summer weekends at this point are already sold out,” Greenporter Inn owner Deborah River Pittorino said. “Greenport is busier than ever.”

Other area hotels like the Hilton Garden Inn in Riverhead are also reporting a record number of bookings. Sales director Meghan Mathesen said the hotel is almost sold out seven days a week from May through October. “Summer has always been busy, but there is a high demand for hotel rooms this year,” she said.

Last year, direct tourist spending generated $9.2 million, according to the North Fork Promotion Council.

Tourism is critical to the viability of the North Fork’s small business community and agricultural operations, according to council president Joan Bischoff.

With a substantial number of tourism-dependent seasonal jobs, visitor traffic is crucial for local employment and area economy, Mr. Bischoff said.

To support the small businesses and the tourism industry in general, the North Fork Promotion Council — whose members include the North Fork and Mattituck chambers of commerce — has recently partnered with East End Tourism Alliance to undertake collaborative marketing projects, he said. To help manage vehicle traffic in the coming months and beyond, for example, the groups plan to test the viability of a shuttle network, which could increase tourism without burdening local roadways, infrastructure and natural assets.

Mr. Cogliano said it’s the North Fork’s natural beauty that attracted him to the area, but its family-friendly atmosphere makes it ideal for his two young children. He said the waterways provide a lot of options for fun, and that boating, fishing and lazy beach days will all be on the agenda.

After a fall season slowed by Sandy and other storms, local business owners are welcoming the expected increase in tourism this summer.

“We need a really great summer for businesses to recover what they lost due to Sandy,” said North Fork realtor Donielle Cardinale, a member of the Mattituck Chamber of Commerce. Storm damage caused some Mattituck businesses to close for extended periods for reconstruction, she said, and in some cases, inventory was destroyed due to wind and prolonged power outages.

Some business owners incorporated Sandy-related repairs with re-branding efforts as well as construction upgrades.

Ms. Cardinale called the North Fork a “warm” and welcoming place for visitors, and expressed confidence that any newcomers will enjoy their stays here.

“The entire community is like ‘Cheers’! Everyone is friendly,” she said. “It’s going to be an exciting summer.”

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