Warren Schein reflects on time as Port Chamber of Commerce president

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Warren Schein recently retired from the Port Washington Chamber of Commerce after more than 30 years with the organization. (Photo courtesy of Warren Schein)

Warren Schein’s three-decade journey with the Port Washington Chamber of Commerce  began with a note in his high school yearbook.

“We had autograph books for your friends to write ‘good luck,’ ‘have a nice summer,’ things like that,” Schein recalled. “On the very first page, my father had signed it, and he said… ‘Whatever community you end up in, be an asset to that community.’ It made you realize, the only way to make a change is to get involved.”

That drive to get involved led Schein to volunteer with the Port Chamber of Commerce in the 1980s. In the more than 30 years he spent with the organization — 27 of them as president or co-president — he had a hand in creating such community staples as Harborfest, Pride in Port and the Greater Port Washington Business Improvement District. Schein recently announced that he would be stepping down as president.

I’m proud of the accomplishments of this organization,” he said. “This Chamber of Commerce is one of the most successful, productive chambers in the state.”

Although his zest for the community might make it appear so, Schein is not Port-born and bred. He grew up in Queens and first came to Port Washington to work at “the original Louie’s” on Manhasset Bay, ferrying residents to their sailboats and back.

“I had a skiff there that I fixed up, and I took it on a journey from Port to City Island in the Bronx,” Schein remembered. “The engine blew up when I reached the dock. I never brought it back.”

He decided to give up a life at sea to make shoes. He opened a small shop on Main Street called Beacon Bootery in the 1980s. Shortly thereafter, he joined the Port Washington Chamber of Commerce.

One of the first things he worked on as a member of the chamber was the Port Promenade.

“I just came up with some ideas, like to get the bands from Schreiber [High School] to come down and perform on a little stage in front of the LIRR station,” he said. “We would go up and down Main Street and give out balloons. The purpose of it was to get people interested in businesses in Port Washington.”

Businesses would sell goods on Main Street — which was closed to vehicular traffic — and sometimes rides would be set up for children.

Schein worked closely with then-president Roy Smitheimer and others to help revitalize the chamber. In 1991, Schein took over as president.

“I was asked to help out, and then they put me in charge,” he joked.

Schein frequently shook up the events that were planned for Port. When residents “got tired” of Port Promenade, the chamber decided to end the event and do something new. Shortly after assuming the role of president, Schein helped to launch the Octoberfest Antiques and Collectibles Street Fair.

“It drew thousands of people from all over Long Island and Queens,” he said. “People who were never in Port Washington, it convinced them to come back and do business … and realize that Port was more than just a dock and seafood restaurants.”

When the Octoberfest Street Fair wore out its welcome, it was replaced by several other events — such as HarborFest and Pride in Port — that continue to this day. The former continues to draw thousands from around the area to the peninsula, while the latter provides an opportunity to celebrate local students.

His tenure was also marked by programs that helped to promote Port businesses year-round. In the mid-1990s, the chamber started the biannual publishing of the Try Port First business directory. The organization also created the Greater Port Washington Business Improvement District.

“It took some time because the commercial landlords would be taxed a little extra and we had to convince them,” Schein said. “But the money would go to sidewalk improvements and benches and beautification that would bring people to Port Washington. After they approved it, we had to get approval from the villages. But it worked out, and we were the first inter-municipal BID in New York state.”

Through it all, Schein stressed that he could not have done it all without the help of others. He said former Town of North Hempstead Supervisor May Newburger was instrumental in establishing the Greater Port Washington BID. He said the members like Smitheimer helped him to learn that ropes, and the members of the board today — such as Executive Director Bobbie Polay — played as much of a role in getting things done as he did.

“We did all these things together. It wasn’t just me,” Schein said. “I just added fuel to the fire. It was never a one-person operation.”

Schein will still be connected to the chamber, although he is turning his focus to his career as a voice actor for commercials. Looking back, he said he had no regrets about his time as president.

“If I could do it again, I would, and I wouldn’t change a thing,” he said. “It was the friendships that made it what it was.”

Reach reporter Luke Torrance by email at ltorrance@theislandnow.com, by phone at 516-307-1045, ext. 214, or follow him on Twitter @LukeATorrance.

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