For years, I’ve labeled myself ‘casino agnostic’. I’ve neither shared the economic salvation euphoria of the casino proponents, nor the doom and gloom predictions of casino opponents. If the casinos came, fine — this is a big county with plenty of room for everyone. If they didn’t, that was fine with me, too. The renaissance of Sullivan County seemed to be chugging along just fine, at least on the surface.
In the last few months, I’ve changed my tune. The reason is hotels. We just don’t have enough hotel rooms to support a vibrant, growing tourist industry. We need a tourist industry to support new restaurants, shops, galleries, outdoor outfitters and all of the other low-impact small businesses necessary to revitalize our small villages and hamlets. The second home market, while certainly an economic bright spot in Sullivan County, isn’t quite enough.
We need new hotels and resorts, enough beds to sleep hundreds or even thousands of overnight guests. City folks who will stay over and eat in our restaurants, golf on our courses, canoe our rivers, shop in our shops, frequent our fairs and festivals and buy tickets to Bethel Woods, the Forestburgh Playhouse, the Shandelee Music Festival and the Delaware Valley Opera.
Over the past few years, I’ve talked at length with at least a half dozen hotel developers. They’ve heard the buzz about Sullivan County and want to do something here. They’re not amateurs, but pretty experienced hotel people with innovative ideas who’ve done great projects in other areas. They come and they look. But they don’t commit. The reason, simply put, is that our season is too short. They can’t justify a major resort investment with just a 2 or 3 month summer season with a a short fall foliage kicker plus a few weekends for fly fishing and hunting. Without good downhill skiing, we just don’t have a robust winter season.
These hotel developers aren’t necessarily looking to build casino-centric hotels within a mile of the Monticello raceway. But they do see at least one casino here as essential to expanding the ‘season’ and making a resort financially viable. They try to pencil out scenarios to lengthen the season without a casino, by including a spa or water park, and filling midweek rooms off-season with conference business. But it always comes down to the draw of a casino to fill off-season weekends that seems to tip the financial scales.
For now at least, without a casino, hotel developers (with the exception of Capelli at the Concord) are just waiting in the wings. And Sullivan County continues to wait for the new hotels that I personally think are so essential for the next spurt in Sullivan County’s turnaround. Without a lot of new hotel rooms, I doubt we’ll see the New York Philharmonic commit to Bethel Woods as a permanent summer home, nor will we likely see a major expansion of Bethel Woods itself, with an indoor performance hall and other facilities. We probably won’t see a lot of new restaurants, shops and galleries, as well as more frequent bus service from Manhattan.
So I’ve come to believe that a casino isn’t just about a casino, or the jobs it will directly create. I think it is essential to bring other development to Sullivan County that will increase the viability of other businesses in far reaching parts of our county. Its great to wish for a nice restaurant in Livingston Manor or Jeffersonville (both Stella’s in Jeffersonville and Resort in Livingston Manor are now closed), but without patrons that just isn’t going to happen.