by Terence P Ward
On a chill February night, a meeting room in the Trudy Resnick Farber Building in Ellenville was packed with people who wanted to spend a million dollars. The occasion was the first public meeting of the so-called Ellenville Million economic development committee, which has been tasked by Ulster County Executive Mike Hein with listening to pitches, culling the weak, and grooming the best over the coming months. In the end, Hein and the county legislature will receive recommendations, and decide how to spend this seeming windfall to this economically struggling community.
Hein explained that the county is due $1.7 million in state funds to offset any casino impact from neighboring counties, money which is earmarked for such things as law enforcement and infrastructure issues. “That also frees up other dollars” in the county budget, he explained, “from which we can dedicate $1 million to the Ellenville-Wawarsing area.”
Hopes were dashed when the Nevele, a Borscht Belt resort which has stood vacant for years, was passed over for a Class 3 gaming license last year. Residents and organizations of the village of Ellenville, the surrounding town of Wawarsing, and many adjacent communities all rallied behind the idea of a casino to bring economic revitalization to this formerly vibrant industrial and resort town, with very little opposition. After Governor Cuomo asked the gaming committee to reopen discussion to consider a fourth casino license, hope briefly flared again, but was soon dashed when it became clear that no additional casino in this part of the state would be forthcoming. That hasn’t stopped supporters of gambling from trying one last push, though, in the form of a bill to allow video lottery terminals (VLTs) in several local resorts. Despite supporting that measure as a “second prize” to Ulster County, Assemblyman Kevin Cahill expects resistance from the holders of the newly-awarded casino license in Sullivan County.
A full 20 days after that first Ellenville Million meeting, the owners of the Nevele unveiled their own “Plan B” for restoring the resort to some of its former glory, in part relying upon those VLTs that Assemblyman Cahill believes will face some opposition. The $100 million plan would create a sports complex with “four full-baseball fields and eight regulation fields for soccer, field hockey, and lacrosse,” according to a press release, as well as 750 video lottery terminals, an indoor aquatics center, and a “full array of technology to attract talented amateur athletes from the metropolitan area and beyond.” CEO Michael Treanor said it would “complement the Sullivan County casino project at Montreign,” and that the Nevele has asked for Governor Cuomo’s backing for the VLT-enabling legislation. It bears repeating that some of the projects proposed for the Ellenville Million were articulated without knowledge of these plans.
Based on the attendance at this first meeting, the announcement of the Ellenville Million is capturing some of the enthusiasm and momentum seen in the push for the Nevele. The ideas offered were plentiful. One suggestion was a new website, together with active social media engagement and promotion of the area through popular travel sites, as was revitalization of local parks with new and improved amenities. Some focused on the Nevele and its grounds, since it’s unclear what the owners of that property might want to do now that a casino is clearly not in the cards. One suggestion was to transform the property into dormitories for local community colleges, another was to transform it into a high-end assisted living facility that would capitalize on the existing trails on the site.
Drawing upon history was another common theme. Two significant museum projects were proposed, one for knives and another focusing on the heyday of the Catskills resort era. The knife museum idea is based on the fact that the Schrade knife company was once a major employer locally, its factory now an empty hulk. The Catskill Resort Museum is a much more ambitious project, with plans to open a massive complex including exhibit space and lecture hall in 2020. According to Katrina Foster, who spoke for the plan’s longtime advocate Jack Godfrey, any money invested in the $40 million museum would be returned “at the back end.”
Looking to nature and outdoor recreation, Wawarsing deputy supervisor Terry Houck suggested the money be spent on bike trails and related infrastructure, and John Adams asked for money to fund a feasibility study for the Catskill-Shawangunk Greenway project, which would use former prison farm Colony Farm and the ever-expanding rail trail system as linchpins of a greater 500-acre greenway area that would draw ecotourists to the area. The 250-acre farm itself would become an “agpark,” featuring artisanal cheese, ice cream, and Greek yogurt, with grass-fed cows and an agriculture-themed visitor’s center.
While other suggestions focused on improving streetscapes and finding ways to keep local youth away from drugs and on a path to success, local Shawangunk Journal publisher Alex Shiffer was hopeful that the committee would take a different approach. “A million dollars won’t get you very far if it’s an end-stage project,” he said, recalling a number of projects he’s seen proposed over the years, including a line of windmills atop the ridge, which he thinks would have been “an environmental disaster, but appealed to the geek in me.” Instead of focusing on “planters and websites,” he observed, the money should be invested in creating an economic development office that is ultimately self-sustaining. “It could pay for staff for a few years, and they could find someone really qualified to do the job, with the understanding the their first priority would be to find grants and funding to continue the work over the long haul. They had an economic development kind of officer a few years ago, but it didn’t have enough money, and I don’t think it had the right people to run it, and it kind of fizzled out. Supposedly it still exists today, but we haven’t heard much lately.”
However, that doesn’t mean that Shiffer didn’t have his own favorite pitch. “I admit, the idea of turning the old Schrade site into a massive solar farm is really cool,” he said. “There’s a certain amount of regional pride in knowing that all your power is being generated that way. But I have no idea what it would take to make that happen.” Hence, his interest in using the money for the long haul, rather than again gambling on the success of one or two big ideas, much like how so many hopes were heaped upon the Nevele becoming a local gambling Mecca.
That sentiment was also hinted at by Hein, who made brief introductory remarks before scooting out just as the first presentations were being made. “The Ellenville Million is no panacea,” he said, but, “I love this place. We’re going to make it better. Bring your ideas forward. If no one else will help us, we will help ourselves.”