Guest Spot: Vail Leavitt will survive despite town leaders’ attacks

While I have not publicly commented of late, recent news reports and actions have prompted me to issue this statement.

I am very proud that the Vail-Leavitt Music Hall continues to serve its mission to the community. We have managed to sustain ourselves through the efforts of great bands, including Rosie Ledet & the Zydeco Playboys, Lil’ Cliff & the Cliffhangers, Who Are Those Guys, Jessie Haynes, Bruce MacDonald, the EastEnders Thursday Night Jazz Jammers and numerous others who gave of their time and talent to assist us in fundraising events over the last 10 months. Each of them were part of the annual Blues Festival over the last few years, and we sincerely appreciate their support at this crucial time in our organization’s history. For a more complete retrospective, I encourage readers to see the array of Vail-Leavitt memorabilia currently on display at Riverhead Free Library during the month of August.

Special thanks are due to our treasurer, Vince Tria. His service to the Music Hall has been unquestionably meritorious through the last 8-plus years serving as an integral part of the efforts that restored and operated the Vail. Over that time, Mr. Tria was recognized with awards for his exemplary volunteerism by diverse groups including local media, Chamber of Commerce and Daughters of the American Revolution. These accolades have only been rivaled by the frequency of his often unfair vilification by those who perceive him as a political opponent.

This raises the thorny subject of local politics. Over the last 9-plus years that I have been part of the Vail-Leavitt’s executive board, we attempted to keep the Vail neutral. Our open rental policy provided ample opportunity for all local parties to utilize the hall for fundraising and made the Vail a comfortable forum for candidate debates, public meetings, and civic events. In fact, a review of our schedule history shows that up to the town’s inaugural event of 2010, politically affiliated events were split almost exactly 50-50 between Republican and Democratic parties in addition to a larger number of nonpartisan Town Board meetings and events.

Our path since that inaugural is well documented in public records: a hostile takeover attempt of the Blues Festival, followed by smear and innuendo tactics against us. When I offered to open discussions with town leaders in January, I was rebuffed and insulted. When I inquired about alternative sites or plans, those who had refused to negotiate in good faith suddenly expressed outrage. Finally in April, as a last resort, I applied for two event dates specifically attempting to prompt town leaders to hold some talks — any talks — with my organization. For the record, the Vail-Leavitt Music Hall board did not withdraw its special event applications this year; they were intentionally bypassed by the Town Board in favor of competing Business Improvement District Management Association proposals.

If the Town Board had read those two proposals, as I did, they would have found a compromise was easily attainable. The Vail proposed using our own outdoor stage which wouldn’t have interfered with the BID’s use of the town showmobile. Despite my attempts to initiate a meeting prior to the Town Board’s action, none was scheduled. Both events were proposed as free admission, so why was the Vail’s specifically overlooked? Neither  application included food or crafts vendors, but both food and alcohol were served at the July 16 BID event, legal violations retroactively remedied by a Town Board resolution days after the event. We all know that if the Vail-Leavitt had ever served alcohol without proper advance permits in place, the response would have been swift and severe. It’s also possible there was no proper event insurance in place for either BID event, exposing taxpayers to millions in risk because of the Town Board’s lack of due diligence in reviewing the applications.

Recently, officials from Patchogue complimented the Music Hall at an event sponsored by the iloveriverhead group. They described how their performing arts center was supported by millions of dollars in taxpayer funds, including bonds. Our Music Hall’s restoration was almost entirely funded through grants and Tanger mitigation fees with no taxpayer costs. Our non-profit corporation maintains itself independently, whereas Patchogue village pays for all capital improvements for their theater. The support for the Suffolk Theater renovation by the BID management association and Town Board members has been noteworthy while the non-profit Vail-Leavitt has only been maligned. The Music Hall perseveres despite having our central fundraiser “replaced” by a consortium of local businessmen and politicians, and will find innovative ways to continue our mission in the faces of those who disparage us.

The facts are clear. The Vail-Leavitt has survived the past 19 months in spite of our town leaders. Local government should act to shield and support the Vail, not attack or ostracize it. One would think a charitable and historic community venue supporting itself independently deserved better. The Music Hall board never interfered with or criticized the quality of events produced by others, but the reverse cannot be said. When we urged others to talk with us, we weren’t given the opportunity to speak and were simply ignored. I believe our experience and input could have helped.

There was irony to be found in the BID’s “Mardi Gras” event. In the actual New Orleans version, the parades and music events benefit the local economy and also give financial support to many charitable and community organizations. In Riverhead, the event was produced solely for the profit earned by a few select businesses. Meanwhile, town representatives neglected and alienated the town’s oldest historic performance venue run by an all-volunteer group which gave of its meager resources for community benefit throughout the year. The BID management association eventually and grudgingly offered the Vail a small rental fee to act as an indoor venue on Aug. 6, reminiscent of the schoolyard bully who swipes a dessert cake, eats most of it, then asks if you’d like the crumbs back. They and our Town Board should be ashamed for the manner in which they continue to treat the Vail-Leavitt. Arrogance has become a conspicuous cover for an inept and bullying style embodied by these so-called “leaders.”

My contempt for them is only exceeded by the pride in my steadfast board and our supporters for moving us forward.

To all members of our community, the board of the Vail-Leavitt Music Hall once again encourages your involvement and help in any manner. We are always receptive to motivated volunteers and those with constructive suggestions. Contact us via our website at www.vail-leavitt.org or by phone at 727-5782.

Robert Barta is the president of the Council for the Vail-Leavitt Music Hall Inc.