I went up to the country last week. More specifically, I went to the opening of the Resorts World Catskills casino and hotel, which was built on property owned by the erstwhile Concord Hotel.
This was a moment many people thought they would never see. Sullivan County had been trying to get New York State to allow casino gambling for more than 40 years. It was to be the savior of the struggling Borscht Belt resorts. Alas, the legislature never voted on the issue and one by one the hotels went out of business.
Finally, with leadership from Gov. Andrew Cuomo, a casino gambling law was enacted in 2013 that would permit four full casinos (table games and video games) to be built around the state. Resorts World’s owners submitted a winning proposal and a little more than four years later Sullivan County got its casino.
Before going to play (and lose some money), I watched the speechmaking and ribbon cutting ceremony. Company executives, politicians and labor leaders all got their turn at the podium. They talked about changing the conversation about Sullivan County. “This new resort truly heralds the rebirth of the Catskills, and will serve as an economic driver, generating thousands of jobs and opportunities for people in the region,” Cuomo said in delivering remarks via video from offsite.
Resorts World is indeed a shining city on a hill. One approaches it via a new road built from Exit 106 on Route 17 without seeing the degradation found elsewhere in Sullivan County: abandoned hotels, bungalow colonies, stores, etc. Has Sullivan County’s phoenix arisen from the ashes?
Sullivan County was a part of my life growing up. When my sister and I were young, we often traveled with our parents to Monticello, where the local hotel workers union was Dad’s client. If he had to be there for a few days, we’d stay at the Concord, which was a union shop, or one of the local motels. I later worked as a busboy at the Concord for two summers while I was in college.
This was during the early 1970s, and people were already saying the resorts, were past their prime, Concord included. Of the 500 or so resort hotels that once operated in the southern Catskills, only the Raleigh, which markets exclusively to ultra-Orthodox Jews, and Villa Roma, an Italian hotel, remain. The cause of the decline can be summed up as the three As: air conditioning, assimilation and air travel. The hotel owners could not adapt to the secular shifts in the marketplace that confronted their businesses.
Like many, I am nostalgic for the Borscht Belt’s golden years. However, I know it will never be replicated. Still, I was heartened to see a new hotel built on the property of the place that was once billed as “the world’s foremost resort.” I am sure my Dad and his clients were looking down from heaven and smiling that day. The Catskills will rise again, but in a different form.
I believe in reinvention. I played a role in the renaissance of the City College of New York, an institution once known as the “Harvard of the Poor,” that, like the Catskills, had suffered a long, slow decline. I learned from that experience that reinvention is something that doesn’t end. It has to be ongoing if it is to succeed. I am the early stages of my own reinvention. I’ll keep working at it because the day you stop is the day you die.