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Will Casinos Aid a Revival of the Catskills?

Thursday April 10th, 2014 - 10:31AM


Nobody puts Baby in a corner. This pop culture phrase from 1987’s Dirty Dancing—which, surely, anyone over 35 is familiar with—is fiction. But the premise of the story is true. For more than a century, families from the New York Metropolitan area spent their summer vacations at hotels and resorts spread throughout the upstate New York counties, including Greene, Ulster, Delaware and Sullivan—simply known as the Catskills.

According to Esterita “Cissie” Blumberg, author of Remember the Catskills, Tales by a Recovering Hotel Keeper, at its high point, there were more than 1,000 properties
operating throughout the region; some of the more well known were the Concord, Grossingers, Kutsher’s, the Nevele and the Pines Resort.

Over the years, some of the most opulent mega-resorts were built, the Concord being the most famous of them all. Considered by many as Miami Beach’s Fountainebleau of the North, the Concord sat on 1,600 acres, could accommodate 5,000 people at one time and had a dining room that sat 3,000. The hotel’s nightclub, the Imperial Room, presented some of the world’s most famous entertainers.

Over the years, scores of iconic entertainers honed their skills on hotel stages throughout the region. Legends such as Milton Berle, Mel Brooks, Lenny Bruce,
Rodney Dangerfield, Carl Reiner, Don Rickles and Joan Rivers, just to name a few. In later years, more contemporary stars, such as Jerry Seinfeld, performed at Kutshers’ Hotel.

Unfortunately in the mid- to late-1960s, declines at many Catskills resorts were apparent. As air travel to distant resort locations became more convenient and affordable, families in the New York Metropolitan area reduced their patronage of the Catskill resorts. The 1970s, ’80s and early ’90s took more of a dramatic toll on the more lavish establishments. In 1986 Grossingers closed, and the Concord
filed for bankruptcy shortly thereafter and closed a year later.

The good news is the region may be positioned for a revival. Last month, EPR Properties and Empire Resorts, the company that operates a slot machine parlor at the Monticello, NY racetrack, unveiled plans for a $750-million casino resort, the first of what may turn out to be a dozen competing proposals for one of four state gambling licenses in upstate New York.

Empire Resorts says it has the necessary permits in hand to build a sprawling casino hotel with slot machines and gaming tables, an entertainment hall, spa and shops, as well as an 18-hole golf course and family resort featuring a conference center, an indoor water park and an outdoor adventure park. The resort, called
Adelaar, would be on 1,700 wooded acres outside Monticello, where the former Concord Resort was once located.

I am not naive enough to think the Catskills will ever recapture its glorious past. However, casinos, a couple of resorts along with a conference center or two, combined with a few limited-service properties surrounding each, may at least provide a glimmer of the region’s historic past.

—Jay Schultz, Sr. VP Hospitality Group