Seth Weissman, Matthew Blesso, and Andrew Kirtzman just purchased nearly all the commercial property in New York's gay summer enclave. No, they're not turning straight, jacking up prices, or serving foie gras mousse. We talked to them about their plans.
The thing about the Fire Island Pines, one of 17 nearly-isolated communities on the barrier island south of Long Island, is that it is one of the few exclusively gay male ghettos left on the planet—and that's the way everyone wants to keep it— and its culture of partying, socializing, and messing around is very entrenched and rigid. "The thing about the Pines is that everyone does everything at exactly the same time," says Kirtzman, an author and former broadcast journalist who owns a B&B on the island. "We've agonized over every decision about what will disrupt the routine. Our cardinal rule is don't disrupt the routine. Don't touch low tea, don't touch middle tea, don't touch high tea."
Anyone who has spent a weekend treading the Pines' boardwalks or messing around in the Meat Rack will know that he is referring to series of drinking occasions that start every Saturday and Sunday afternoon, where a herd of drunk and horny gay men travel from one location to the next like vodka-soda starved locusts. It can be a whole lot of fun, and it appears that the new owners don't want to tinker with a successful and time-honored formula.
The triumvirate says they've been meeting with homeowners and renters who spent the summer in the Pines to figure out what to fix. Their immediate plans for improvement are focused on improving the Blue Whale Restaurant, redesigning the Pavilion nightclub, adding a pool deck next to the hotel, and completely revamping the Hotel Ciel (known popularly as the Botel), a cinderblock monstrosity famous for its musty rooms, broken fixtures, shared bathrooms, and insanely inflated rates.
For the restaurant, they have brought in the owners of Hamptons eatery Almond to class up the joint and give people who don't want to cook at home an option other than the pizza. "The guys from Almond will be running our food and distribution, but it's not going to be French fare. It's going to be much lighter, beach chic menu," Weissman, officially 26 years old (though original reports pegged him much younger) says, digging at a recent New York Times piece that gave the restaurant's "foie gras mousse with kumquat basil marmalade" as an illustrative dish. He also quibbled with the piece's statement about their revenue projections, which aren't as high as "increas[ing] at least sixfold," as the Times said.
Kirtzman says that plans are immediately underway to redo the flow of traffic inside the Pavilion and that acoustical engineers have been consulted to make the sound better for the circuit DJs playing house music well into the morning. "One of my major complains is there is no wow factor inside," Kirtzman says, adding that new lights will add some pizazz.
Blesso, a straight real estate developer with a beautiful home is focused on the hotel. While visitors will have to wait the longest to see changes here—construction won't begin until this fall—this summer the trio is focused on offering people a low-cost weekend in no-frills rooms where everything works.
For other small improvements, the Fresh Market grocery store that previous owner Eric von Kersteiner opened to try to bust the grocery monopoly afforded long-running Pines Pantry, will be closed. A general store will go up in its stead. They're also adding a Sunday afternoon party—possibly another must-attend event to the set schedule—on the new pool deck next to the hotel, which will be refurbished, re-landscaped, and reappointed.
When asked why he sold his property when it wasn't even on the market, von Kuersteiner says with a laugh, "The price." He bought the property six years ago with his partner (in business and life), Tony Roncolli, and nearly quadrupled his money in the $17 million deal. Von Kuersteiner, though credited with bringing a new crop of young, successful gay men to the community, was regarded as a bit of a tyrant who wouldn't let his staff attend venues not under his control and quashing plans for other business to expand or be successful. When asked if the new owners overpaid, he says he doesn't know and time will tell, adding, "They have ambitious revenue targets to meet." He'll still be on the island this summer running a construction company he still owns and planning two annual dance parties, the Bay Dance and Ascension.
There has been skepticism expressed by Fire Island Pines regulars that the new owners will be able to recoup their investment. Weissman, who has a background in venture capital and real-estate development, says that several respectable appraisers looked and the properties and the businesses and that, based on their findings, the trio got a sweet deal. Of course he would say that or else the parcel of real estate wouldn't have looked attractive in the first place.
There has also been concern that Blesso, a successful real estate developer, is straight and the way they're going to make all their cash back is to make the place fancy and start selling houses to hetero families. "I'm not trying to change the character of the Pines. I'm not sure I could even if I wanted to," Blesso says, chuckling that he thinks it's a compliment when people say he looks like the gayest of the three in their picture.
With the start of the summer season just a bit more than a month away, the crew has a small window to turn things around and a large burden to show the gay-list regulars that they're going to be improving life on the island. Whether or not they will make it happen is going to be the topic of conversation in gay circles for weeks to come. No one knows whether or not the changes will be successful, but one thing is for sure, there's going to be more gossip about the actual Pines this summer than who hooked up with whom.