For many Westporters, the end of Labor Day weekend is bittersweet. Summer is “officially” over.
Stuart McCarthy calls it — only partly in jest — the best day of the year.
At 6 p.m. the lifeguards leave for the last time. Finally, the veteran Parks and Recreation director can stop worrying about the safety of thousands of beachgoers. When the sun sets that Monday, McCarthy will relax for the first time since May.
It’s been quite a summer. The weather has been spectacular — until this coming weekend, anyway. The beaches were packed. And — with the notable exception of a parking lot-rage attendant-shoving incident during the fireworks — it’s been a remarkably incident-free season.
Compo has been “as busy as it’s ever been,” McCarthy says. He’s seen a noticeable uptick in non-resident parking. Other non-residents take the train to Saugatuck, then ride taxis — or walk.
Over the past few years, McCarthy notes, there’s been a change in the way people use the beach. Gone are the days when you slathered on coconut oil, and baked in the sun for hours.
“People now come in stages,” the parks director says. There’s far greater use of the picnic area, athletic facilities, playground and pavilion.
Not to mention bikers, joggers, strollers and dogs (on leashes, of course).
More folks come at night, too. “What better place is there than South Beach during a beautiful sunset?” McCarthy asks. “There’s a lot of people, food, action.”
Big crowds can mean big headaches. A major part of the beach staff’s job is keeping problems to a minimum.
Back in the day, Parks and Rec employees were called “security.” Now, they’re “guest services.”
The change is far more than cosmetic.
“The edge is off the way our employees interact with people,” McCarthy says. “The first rule we follow now is: See if you can figure out how to say ‘yes.'”
McCarthy knows that some beachgoers would like stronger enforcement of regulations like no alcohol on the main beach, and no glass bottles everywhere.
“Our staff does not have enforcement capabilities,” he says. “We can’t give out tickets. So we say, very nicely, ‘please don’t do that.’ We ask for cooperation. Sometimes it’s effective, sometimes not.”
But, McCarthy notes, “people go to the beach to have fun. We try to create a fun environment, so long as what they do does not negatively impact other people.”
McCarthy is proud of his “guest services” staff. Many return year after year, bringing continuity and experience.
Lifeguards too are in the guest services business. They pick up litter, resolve conflicts before they escalate, and help create a positive, friendly environment.
“For years we always said ‘no’ to things like playing ball on the beach, skimboarding and boogie boards,” McCarthy says. “The reason was because maybe one person complained.
“Now we say those things are okay — so long as people don’t go crazy. And our employees use discretion, to make sure no one gets close to crazy.”
Dan DeVito — who manages guest services, lifeguards and the marina staff — has helped set the positive tone, McCarthy says. DeVito’s assistant, Lee Halpern, is also “tremendous.”
Crucial contributions come too from the maintenance staff. Trash crews work 7 days a week. On the busiest days, collection continues for 12 hours.
The most impressive maintenance job of all begins immediately after the fireworks, as soon as the huge crowd leaves. By early morning — a few hours later — the beach is as pristine as on opening day.
With its pop-up tents, babble of languages and dawn-to-way-past-dusk action, Compo is “more welcoming” than in the past, McCarthy says.
“I love that it’s busy,” he adds. “A huge variety of people use it in a huge variety of ways.”
And — much as he likes what he sees every day during the summer — after Labor Day, they’re on their own.