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September 12, 2016

Harbor hero: A Q&A with Lynn Kelly of the Snug Harbor Cultural Center & Botanical Garden

Lynn Kelly

Snug Harbor President and CEO Lynn Kelly

Originally a home for washed-up sailors, Snug Harbor is now a cultural hub on Staten Island. At its helm is Lynn Kelly, the president and CEO of the Snug Harbor Cultural Center & Botanical Garden. Kelly, who landed on City & State’s inaugural Staten Island 50, also serves on NYC & Company’s executive committee and sits on the New York City Economic Development Corporation board when she isn’t busy juggling Snug Harbor’s many offerings, from the schools to the gardens to the artists’ studios. In an interview with City & State’s Jeff Coltin, Kelly discussed tourism on Staten Island, redevelopment on the North Shore and funding for Snug Harbor.

C&S: Staten Island is making a huge push for new visitors. What role does Snug Harbor play in that?
LK: Snug Harbor’s role is as the cultural anchor to the redevelopment of the North Shore of Staten Island. Our role is an important one. As Staten Island’s waterfront changes and goes through a renaissance, our role as cultural facility – particularly one that really works closely with the local community – becomes that much more important, because we’re one of the original building blocks of this community.
On the flip side of that, as increased tourism comes to Staten Island, we think it’s really important that people get to see what’s often known as “the hidden gem of Staten Island,” which is Snug Harbor.

C&S: Some 2,500 apartments are coming to the North Shore, plus the Ferris wheel and the outlet mall – what does this mean for Staten Island as a whole?
LK: I personally find it to be an exciting time for Staten Island. When I grew up here, you went to college – and this often happened, it didn’t happen with everyone – but you might have grown up here, gone to school somewhere else and if you wanted to return here, there weren’t a lot of options in terms of urban-style apartment living. You can’t just necessarily buy a house at a young age. You can’t afford it. So I think the fact that now there are going to be more apartments and a different type of housing stock on Staten Island, it really lends itself to having a more diverse community in age, in background, in socioeconomic status and I think that’s a really great thing. That’s what makes healthy neighborhoods.

Snug Harbor

C&S: Snug Harbor is on the North Shore, but it’s either a long walk or a short ride away from the ferry terminal and a lot of the new development. What are you planning on doing to draw visitors on the ferry over to Snug Harbor?
LK: I think as the waterfront landscape changes, it will feel like less of a walk. The truth is, it’s only about a mile, but when you walk a mile where there’s retail, parks, things along your walk, you don’t notice it as much. And that’s really what’s shaping with the Wheel and its development – that connection. It’s going to make that connection even feel physically shorter, so that’s a good thing.
In the meantime, once the Wheel is up we’re actually going to have a shuttle. The Wheel is generously providing a shuttle to Snug Harbor on weekends and we’re going to test that out and see what kind of attendance we get. We’re also fortunate that the public transportation, the bus that connects right in the ferry, the bus drivers all know Snug Harbor and announce Snug Harbor at the stop. We’ve actually seen an increase in people taking public transportation.
I think part of what I’m always dealing with in running Snug Harbor, or what a lot of Staten Island people will tell you, is perception is so much harder to combat than reality. People that are not from Staten Island or haven’t been here often have preconceived notions about distance, about who lives there, and when they get here and they actually try it out and get to know locals and get to see how beautiful it is, the perceptions change instantly.

C&S: We’ve heard a ton of complaints about transportation on Staten Island – both with car traffic and public transportation. Are you hopeful that a North Shore rail will ever happen? What’s your ideal transportation future?
LK: If money were no object and I could wave my fairytale public transportation wand, I would go for the obvious, which is: We’re an island. We should be activating our waterfront with waterborne transit. And I think the connection of additional waterborne transit, particularly from Stapleton or other North Shore areas to Brooklyn, to Manhattan, is really critical.
Yes, would I love to have a North Shore rail here, would I love to have additional services, ground transportation, absolutely! I’d also love to have Citi Bike! It makes no sense to me that we’re the only borough with no Citi Bike, where the ferry could be a perfect connection up and down the North Shore.
But as an island, once again, if we had all the money in the world to do it, because I know it’s very expensive, my first choice would be to try to activate the waterfront.

Snug Harbor

C&S: Last year, there were worries Snug Harbor would close if it didn’t get more funding, and now you’ve just worked out a new deal with the city to get an additional $400,000 a year, and renegotiated some other aspects. That sounds like a great deal – how’d you convince them?
LK: (Laughs.) It didn’t happen overnight. It’s something I had been working on since I got here five and a half years ago. And I was fortunate to have the support of my board and, honestly, every single elected official out here. We were unified about our approach to City Hall. It was, “Now is the time.” Staten Island is going through really rapid changes. Snug Harbor is this incredible resource. We could be this arts incubator for all of New York City, we have beautiful spaces, but it’s a mammoth campus to manage. There’s aging infrastructure, 180-year-old buildings, there was an outdated lease with the city. It took a village, so to speak, but we were fortunate that City Hall and this administration listened and worked with us towards a successful outcome. They saw the importance of Snug Harbor in the renaissance of the North Shore and the importance of its sustainability within culture and the arts in New York City.

C&S: Is it enough? Are you comfortable going forward that you’ll be out of fiscal trouble?
LK: I don’t think anyone who manages a site of this magnitude as a nonprofit is ever going to be 100 percent comfortable. I think you’re fooling yourself. But I think that we’ve made enormous strides in the right direction and I see blue skies ahead.

C&S: There’s been talk on the Staten Island Advance comment boards that Snug Harbor is a natural location for building new affordable housing. Is that something you’d ever look into, or consider selling off part of the campus for new development?
LK: I don’t read the message boards, so this is the first I’m actually hearing of that.

C&S: Do you think Mayor Bill de Blasio is giving enough attention to Staten Island?
LK: I think he’s done right by Snug Harbor, and that means a lot to me.