September 06, 2006

In Westhampton Beach: Where's the Magic Gone?

For years, residents and summer visitors alike have known that a visit to Westhampton Beach is not complete without a stop at Magic's Pub on Main Street, where the burgers have long been the stuff of local lore And for many, a stop at The Artful Dodger was a place for sharing a nightcap and stories at the bar.

But, after Magic's was sold by the Thorne family and new owners, Don MacPherson and his wife Carrie Coakley took over in the second week of July, the couple has received less than a warm welcome from the Westhampton Village Police Department. In fact, last week, the pair was slapped with a stop work order on The Artful Dodger.

For MacPherson, who has been a part-time resident since 1969 and wants nothing more than to create a warm dining experience for families in the village, the reception has been disheartening.

"One of the problems with the village is it appears to be hostile towards business," said MacPherson, who said he's been forced to file a sea of permits and that other business owners have complained of similar problems. "There are rules and regulations about everything, including the color you can paint the building. I spent time in downtown New York but I'm not going to paint the building black."

Last week, said MacPherson, "I was hit with a stop work order." And, he added, he's "not really sure" why, except that it happened while he was working to elevate the back walkway to alleviate drainage and runoff problems.

"People are dining and the police come in, flashing badges, with guns and start telling you what to do. It's ludicrous."

Although Westhampton Village Police Detective Stephen Cunneen did not return calls for comment, an anonymous police source who asked not to be identified said he believed the stop work order had to do with a discrepancy regarding a state liquor license. Separate licenses are needed for both establishments, he said; in the past, both establishments were listed on one license.

MacPherson, who worked in the South Bronx "used to have to vacate every three days because of bomb threats. In those days, it was like Berlin, with the bombed-out buildings. You needed a police force for that."

But, he said, with the virtually nil crime rate in the village, what happens in Westhampton Beach is, "People who are trying to operate a business become the victims of a police force that has nothing else to do."

The bottom line, said MacPherson, who also publishes the SoHo Journal, is that the village police have "taken away a place for local people. It's absurdity."

But despite onerous conditions, MacPherson is steadfast in his commitment to breathing new life into a small-town tradition. So far, he's worked on cleaning up the physical aspects of the restaurant, which, he said, had deteriorated. "People didn't want to use the bathroom."

As well as replacing flooring, bathrooms, ceilings and freezers, MacPherson has plans to expand dining choices, including a kids menu, and add big-screen TVs to The Artful Dodger. "It's a slow process," he said. "But we're not really looking to change anything. We're looking to upgrade, so it's a place people look forward to coming to."

MacPherson and his wife, along with their three young children, have long looked forward to coming to Westhampton Beach, a haven especially after the dark days following 9/11. "We watched the buildings collapse," he said. "The plane went over our apartment."

The family still believes in the village, and considers it a newly emerging, cosmopolitan place to raise a family. And "The Artful Dodger will reopen. But it will reopen when I get a letter from the police department saying I can reopen. I'm not going to reopen and have somebody come in a week later and shut it down because they don't know what they're doing," said MacPherson.

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