Rockaway fair brings crowds back to beach

By Bill Parry

Joe Hartigan grew tired of waiting for the borough’s elected officials to provide economic leadership in Rockaway, a community still struggling with its post-Superstorm Sandy recovery nearly two years after the storm.

So he took matters into his own hands and the result was a high-end street fair right on the boardwalk at Beach 86th Street last weekend.

The retired FDNY lieutenant teamed up with a Long Island-based promoter and the city Parks Department to stage the first Rockaway Beach Boardwalk Craft & Gift Fair. Nearly 60 vendors took part selling handmade designer jewelry, household decor and clothing, among other items.

“What I was happy about was that it was very popular with the beachgoers, but even more popular with the vendors,” Hartigan said. “When I polled each of them on Sunday, I asked if they’d be interested in coming back next year, and they said they’d love to be back next weekend.”

Hartigan got the idea during a conference in Long Beach, L.I., last year.

“It was about the reconstruction of their boardwalk that was lost during Sandy,” Hartigan said. “All they were talking about was their great craft fair that they always had before the storm, They said Alan ran the best one.”

Alan Finchley, founder and promoter of Long Island Street Fairs, listened to Hartigan’s pitch and jumped at the chance to help Rockaway.

“We wanted to bring visitors back to Rockaway,” he said. “Each of our regular vendors has followers on Twitter and Facebook, so we knew there would be people making their way here during the weekend.”

Finchley grew up on 123rd Street in Rockaway Park and spent a few summers working in an arcade on 116th Street, so the weekend was not business as usual.

“It’s not about making money, it’s about bringing business and positive thinking back to Rockaway,” he said. “A positive experience translates to positive word of mouth, and the word gets out that Rockaway is back and open for business.”

Hartigan, a resident of 132nd Street in Belle Harbor, looks at the restoration of the beaches in Rockaway and cannot help but notice how empty they are even on the most beautiful days.

“We’re just trying to get beachgoers and other visitors to come back and help the businesses that we have left,” he said. The city’s Parks Department said Rockaway has had nearly 3 million visitors this year, 1.5 million during July alone. “Jones Beach had 8 million people two years ago,” Hartigan said. “If we had better transportation, we could get some of that crowd because it’s closer to all the tourists staying in Manhattan. That’s why I’m such an advocate for the ferry. More visitors translates to jobs and this community has the highest unemployment rate in Queens.”

The fair was a big hit with the shoppers, and it might have a bigger benefit for the Rockaways, according to Finchley.

“Some of the vendors were still setting up their stalls when the people started buying,” he said. “Some of the vendors were looking at the beautiful buildings across Shore Front Parkway [the Dayton Towers] and thought they might like to live here, maybe even move their businesses to some of those vacant storefronts on 116th Street.”

Reach reporter Bill Parry by e-mail at [email protected] or by phone at 718-260-4538.

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