INTERVIEW: Karen McCutcheon, Fire Island Pines Community Manager

By Laura Schmidt ~ Karen McCutcheon is the first community manager of Fire Island Pines – an employment position still dominated by men in most of the Fire Island communities. While the first year on the job threw her some curveballs, Karen has shown grace under pressure through it all. Fire Island News (FIN): Your current position of community manager is through the Fire Island Pines Property Owners Association, correct?Karen McCutcheon (KM): Yes, I work for FIPPOA. They hired me last year as their first ever community manager. They had actually hired a consultant to come in and evaluate the organization and see what needs they had and they strongly recommended a community manager, similar to other neighborhood communities that have one. There are several on Fire Island, but I’m the first one in Fire Island Pines.FIN: How did you come to accept this position?KM: Well they had over 200 applicants. They had narrowed it down to a certain number and then down to 15, and eventually down to two. They actually hired this guy and he lasted four days and quit! So they called me. It was a long process. I went through phone interviews, a few in-person interviews with part of the board of directors and then met the vice president of the board of directors and that’s how I got hired to the position. And I’m there full days. I work all throughout the year. There’s always something to do, and I can’t even believe that they never even had anybody in this position.FIN: Forgetting about COVID-19 for a moment, what are some of your day-to-day responsibilities as community manager?KM: I’ll work with everybody, from resident concerns, to contractor concerns, to working with different vendors. I just got off a phone call with Verizon, prior to that I was on a conference call with a board member and somebody else regarding a candidate forum we have coming up. I was part of the FIMI Project so I’m on those conference calls, and have been on those conference calls since day one. I work with the Town of Brookhaven, and I address any concerns with the harbor. So anything and everything that has to do with the community kind of falls in my lap.FIN: What inspired you to pursue the position of community manager and how did it feel to earn such a title in a typically male-dominated field?KM: Well, I’ve been going to Cherry Grove for 27 years. I came out late in life when I was 30 years old, and started going to Cherry Grove and renting with friends. I had spent my entire life in corporate. I was a marketing director for Nature’s Bounty for 20 years. The division I worked for was filing for bankruptcy and letting a ton of people go. So, when I was let go, most people walked away upset and I remember driving away and putting my hands on the wheel and thinking, ‘God, I have the whole world in front of me. What is it I want to do now?’ Every time I would start to look for a new job in the papers for marketing, it’s almost like a stress level came over me and I kept saying to myself, ‘What is going on here?’ I used to love marketing and loved being involved in the projects but I realized it wasn’t something I wanted to continue to do. I wanted to do something that I was really passionate about. I started expanding my search into any keywords like “outdoors” or “community” and then the Pines job came up and I read it and thought it would be the perfect job. They wanted to put some structure into the organization and were looking for somebody maybe with a corporate background that can put guidelines and procedures in place. The fact that I grew up in a family with seven brothers, that helps. So working with men wasn’t an issue, wasn’t even a second thought to me. FIN: This has been your first full summer as community manager, how has it been working with the community in a professional capacity?KM: It’s different, my guess is it’s going to be different than any other summer because of not only COVID, but with COVID came residents living in the community full-time as opposed to everybody coming on weekends. So it’s been a lot more demanding in that way because residents are there full-time so it’s kind of a packed place. In a typical summer, during the week it would be quieter so you’re able to accomplish a lot more projects on the to-do list. And this summer, you do get a lot of residents walking in and having inquiries. Meeting the needs and demands of the community residents themselves.FIN: As your first full summer winds down, what are some things you’ve learned that you didn’t expect?KM: Number one: You’ll never please everybody. You can feel like you’re working on something that will make people happy and you find out that while some people like it that way, other people won’t like it. So you’ll never please everybody but you do your best to try and do what’s best for the community and make as many people happy as possible. FIN: Since the media backlash from large gatherings during Fourth of July weekend, has the town enforced any new rules or restrictions to discourage those kinds of unsafe gatherings?KM: We really can’t enforce anything within the community. We have not experienced anything like the Fourth of July but if there is a situation where there’s noise at a house for whatever reason, then we usually address it right away. We’ve set up a 311 at so residents can email us with any situation in the community.FIN: How badly was the Pines hit during the storm that resulted from Hurricane Isaias?KM: About a dozen trees down. Not the entire community, but there were a lot of outages. We were able to get the majority of houses back up and running within 24 hours, which was a pretty good response. We received a lot of 311 emails and we were able to address those immediately. We implemented [311] early in the season and it’s been pretty successful – especially during the storm because the PSEG website was down and you couldn’t get through on the phone, it was very difficult for people to report their outages so it almost looked like Fire Island Pines didn’t have any. But through the 311, we were able to locate the people who were having outages in the community, on top of me going around first thing that morning and listening to people’s comments about how they were down. So the 311 really worked out well during the storm.FIN: Anything planned for the rest of the summer for community members to look forward to?KM: We have an exercise program that somebody does on the beach every week, and yoga at Whyte Hall on our outside deck. Both have been very successful. We had a movie night outside on the deck. There’s also the Jewish holiday services coming up that we just advertised. The good thing is that at Whyte Hall, we have a huge outside deck and we’re able to have some of the events outside in a safe environment with people wearing masks. And most of these [events] benefit something. So [the online silent auction] benefits FIPAP (Fire Island Pines Arts Project). We also have a brunch and silent action with the Pines Conservation Society Sept. 6. That’s actually honoring FIPPOA President Jay Pagano and also Suzy Goldhirsch, president of FIA. Finally there are also annual elections coming up so I’ve been pretty busy with planning the ballot mailing and the event itself. This is a big year as our current president, Jay Pagano, is stepping down after being our FIPPOA President for over 10 years. Luckily, he will remain on the board. We have three current board members running for president.FIN: Is there anything else you’d like to add about the job?KM: I always say this is an awesome job. It definitely has its challenges because there are 15 board members. But what I love about it is that there always is a challenge. You do have those days where you want to pull your hair out of your head but for the most part it’s been an awesome job. And to still be here for over a year and look back at everything that was accomplished and looking forward to everything we still have to accomplish, it’s just an awesome feeling to know that you’re there and helping to make a difference in a community with such amazing people.