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Entries in Fleischmanns (4)

Monday
Jun112012

Saving Main Street, Fleischmanns and Mark Birman... 

Fleischmanns is a village up here, named for the yeast and margerine family who got the village name changed after they donated the land for the village park. The same village park that was wiped out in last summer's floods. To say Fleischmanns is challenged is a bit of an understatement. It's one of those places that's a diamond in the rough, where often people talk about a revival. "If just this would happen..." "If just that...." There was a moment when the artist Rob Pruitt got a house there and his gallery Gavin Brown's Enterprise bussed art worldy folk up for weekend tours. Then Rob sold it, deciding to be closer to the city.

The village (formerly Griffin's Corners) was once a happening resort town. Fancy dancy where people would dress up for strolls outside. Not just the Fleischmanns were there but the Steinways (original owners of Pruitt's former home). What I love about it though is its roughness (so to speak).  Local historian Bill Birns talks about the amazing diversity there, that he can hear Yiddish and Spanish. And, this is what I love about Fleischmanns -- urban, heterogenous – with awesome Mexican food. Check out the tamales on Saturdays at Mi Lupita. Oh, and at the grocery store you can get indian curries if you call ahead.

Mark Birman who I profiled for the Catskill Mountain News is working on the village's revival and wants to keep it the place that it is. He's grown up spending all of his summers here and now like his dad, lives here fulltime.

Mark Birman stands in a storefront across from the post office and grocery on Main Street in Fleischmanns. The walls have been stripped to the studs and insulation, and exposed I-beams cross the ceiling overhead. The floor is raw wood, and the room itself is raw, chilly this late April afternoon. Birman waves broadly, painting a picture of what he envisions for the space: a restaurant, a bakery café, a gallery, a destination.

Unique situation
“We have this special thing here,” he says, “and I want a restaurant to come in that is fully dedicated to that what’s seasonal and local and to promoting the area.” The way he talks about his vision makes you want to see it too. Upstairs are bright apartments with refinished wood floors and the smell of new carpets in the hallways. All four apartments are now currently for rent.

Birman might be the local tennis pro, but he has bigger interests than simply serves and backhands. He owns property in Manhattan, and his ventures here, two buildings in Fleischmanns, are somewhere between Field of Dreams and a small-town Trump. Like Trump, the buildings are named for him. The first, where we stand now, is the “Birman Building,” and he laughs wondering how he’ll get Birman into the name of the second, which he just bought. “The woman at the bank,” he chuckles, “was suggesting, ‘The Other Birman Building.’”

Standing outside on the gravel where a neighboring building once stood, he talks of landscaping and picnic tables. You can nearly see the folks here in summer. He calls the purchases “a good investment” – and he’s not simply talking about what he paid. The cost might have been low but he’s invested a great deal in the property for everything from stripping it back to the raw elements to reconfiguring the apartments upstairs.

Sees strong value
“The value will hold,” he says emphatically. “It’s certainly not getting any worse in Fleischmanns, and more than that, I live here. I go to the post office every day, drive by it every day. This is my village, and I want this town to be as vibrant as it can be. The elements are in place, but far from my personal feelings, the value was good and the timing was good. I’m not just on a mission to save Fleischmanns.

Today Birman wears a white dress shirt and baseball cap emblazoned “Tennis Everyone,” the name of his coaching business. His leather shoes are of the sort that is soft and luxuriant and probably Italian. His voice sounds like that of an unreconstructed New Yorker’s, few of whom exist anymore, and it’s rare to hear that heavy an accent up in the Catskills these days. He grew up in the city, the son of Polish immigrants who both survived the concentration camps, and spent much of his childhood here. He took his first steps at the old Patria Hotel, and by the early ’70s his parents had built the house where Birman lives now in Halcott Center. He has a long and abiding love of the area, describing it as “ home” even if he did not literally grow up here. When rethinking his career in the law, he decided to move back.

Down the street, his second building is at the eastern side of the village. A rambling structure, it’s been known variously over the years as the Evergreen and Emory Brook. Inside stands a grand piano and chairs and tables strewn about like the occupants left in a hurry. The place has a ghostly sense, like you can practically still hear someone at piano. The kitchen has all the professional equipment restaurants require, something Birman would know having attended The Culinary Institute. He says the place could be up and running in a couple of months.

Making changes
He talks about his ideal tenant: someone like Alice Waters. She brought a revolution to Northern California where she changed how people ate and is credited with spurring the growth of farmers’ markets in and around San Francisco.

“I don’t see why it can’t work here,” he says and sees that the building could be a destination with rooms and dining. At a time when local food is particularly hip, with its own catchphrase, “locavore,” and people downstate are flocking to the Catskills to get married for that rural-farm vibe, his plans seem sensible. He wants, though, to find the right tenant to take it forward instead of running it himself. That could be a long shot, particularly when restaurants are notoriously risky ventures and Fleischmanns a long way from its former status as a tourist haven.

Up two dark staircases is a strange warren of single rooms Birman plans on turning into spacious suites. Looking out a bathroom window at the village parking lot, he say he wants to lease it back from the village, not for his or his tenant’s sole use, but to landscape it and make it look inviting.

Fair price
He turns back and says, “People keep asking if I got a steal. I didn’t, the seller should be happy with the price paid, but it’s an investment, and with the Belleayre Resort and ORDA and stores like the Tinderbox, changes are afoot in Fleischmanns. And my time scale?” he asks rhetorically. “Long. I’m patient. I want the right tenant that’s right for the village. One property prospers, the next property prospers.”

 

Mark Birman also the local tennis coach...

Wednesday
Oct262011

Local Politics – The Debate

Somehow covering local politics here in the sticks, makes me feel like William Kennedy. Or dream that I might be like one of my writing heroes. Except we don't have party bosses, kickbacks or anything quite that dodgy -- or fun to write about. WE did however have a debate. The four candidates for town supervisor addressed questions and issues -- all done to the League of Women Voters format. Hosted by the Catskill Mountain News, and moderated by former litigator and tennis coach (my tennis coach, he's great) Mark Birman.

Dick Sanford's photo of the candidates' debate. (Thank you, Dick, fine photographer not to mention editor and publisher of the News)

He was the only one in the room in a suit. The one thing about local politics is that every day is dress down with sweatshirts and workshirts and clashing stripes and plaids all in attendance on the candidates. I didn't write up the candidates' style in the Cats Mtn News, but about the debate itself. Which was fascinating. It even held the boy scouts' interest. Though they too were disappointed in the answers. Read on about the debate below:

 

A hundred and twenty-five people squeezed into the Arkville Firehouse on Monday evening to listen to the four Middletown supervisor candidates debate the issues.

The place was standing room only, with people sitting on the floor and Boy Scouts lined up near the kitchen. In the audience were two mayors, a deputy mayor, town and village board members and the Town of Hardenburgh supervisor.

The crowd included longtime residents, whose families go back generations, as well as new émigrés from the city. There were retirees and those with young families. All came out, making a statement that for at least one night local issues trumped Monday Night Football, the bowling league and watching the Cardinals nearly seal their fate in the World Series.

The evening was remarkable for many firsts; the first town debate in recent memory, the first time there are four candidates – all running without party affiliation, and the first debate to be covered not only by its sponsor, the Catskill Mountain News, but also on TV, the radio and online—a degree of media coverage one might expect in a larger community.

Often in agreement
Perhaps what was most remarkable was how often the candidates’ views overlapped. There were more issues on which they agreed than disagreed, and often the responses expressed merely nuances. The debate was also striking for how civil it was. That’s not to say there weren’t heated moments but they were never directed at each other or the audience. One candidate nearly swore, angry at the town’s inability to dredge, but there was little partisan posturing.

Not about parties
Jake Rosa seemed to sum up the sentiment when he said, “I don’t care what side of the aisle it comes from, a good idea is a good idea.” The night was also striking for the number of times the debaters said they agreed with each other.

Over two-and-a-half hours, questions ranged from what people considered the town’s biggest asset to taxes, the Crossroads Resort (about which Marge Miller quipped,” Dean Gitter has all the personality of road kill”) to the current budget, alternative energy, wind energy, fracking, the future of Margaretville and Freshtown, the Binnekill, tourism, second homeowners and working with local non-profit organizations.

Candidate intro
The first question asked of each candidate was factual, a brief biographical statement, and here the candidates nearly divided into two camps, separated by age and experience. Joe Moskowitz and Marge Miller, the older two both graduated from MCS within a few years of the other and both left for careers in broadcasting and as an actor, while Jake Rosa and Wayd Jaquish, the two younger candidates, also graduated around the same time as the other, and both chose to stay near home working in more traditional local jobs.

Find higher ground
All four candidates want Freshtown to relocate, and all of them support the Belleayre Resort. In fact, Jaquish wants it to return to the original plan – though that had nearly no tax benefit for Middletown as it wasn’t located in the town originally. All pledged to continue stream maintenance for flood mitigation, and Rosa wants to raise federal and grant money to fund it. All supported wind energy in one form or another, and Moskowitz and Miller were outspokenly opposed to fracking. Jaquish and Rosa felt it a non-issue.

Three of the four are opposed to discussing any referendum on property taxes. Moskowitz felt savings should be addressed by finding redundancies in current services and spending, while Jaquish likened the town to running his appliance business: “We need to treat it like a business and run it so it stays within its own means.” Three of the four candidates stated that tourism is the town’s greatest asset, but little was offered in how to encourage it beyond a website and Moskowitz’s saying that the area isn’t like a traditional park with a gate and ranger. “We need to show people where to find activities.” Similarly when asked how to increase second-homeowners participation in the town and as a valuable resource, again a website was suggested.

Some in the audience felt like there was a lack of vision expressed. Each candidate said the Binnekill was a Margaretville-only issue, though the bulkhead to the Binnekill lies in the Town of Middletown, outside the village, and when asked about how they’d work with local non-profits like MARK, most simply affirmed their importance in the community after the flood.

Miller was the only candidate willing to discuss a referendum on taxes. It’s a risky position to talk tax hikes in an election year, but she said, “We can’t not increase taxes as costs increase. We cut 23 percent out of the highway budget so two percent sounds great on paper, but it’s hard to implement.” She went on to say that if we kept increases to two percent or less, that equated to cutting needed work and not replacing needed equipment. It would be better, she asserted, to have a referendum sooner rather than later, when we need to raise the budget by six to eight percent because of all the spending that had been avoided to keep the budget flat.

In discussing the town’s assets, Rosa offered up the forest. He called tourism, “the gravy” not the driver of our entire economy. “We need jobs to attract those 20-60 year-olds to grow the area and support schools and the aging population,” he said, and explained that a forest-based economy would help. Still, he wasn’t clear on specifics. It’s also an area where he not only has a clear interest (he works as a logger and serves on the board of the CFA and the WAC forestry commission) but is an expert and can see areas where we might be able to develop forestry further.

In discussing assets, none of the candidates mentioned water—which is clearly prized by New York City. And none used the question as a way of discussing the area’s relationship with the city or to talk about other assets—like developing the maple syrup industry and other value-added businesses from cider products to small-scale dairies and organic farming.

The evening ended with a question from the Boy Scouts. They wanted to know how each candidate would help restore the Fleischmanns Park. None of the scouts were satisfied with the answers. They all included some spin on, “It’s a village issue, not a town issue.” Miller and Moskowitz both promised to help with lobbying and fund-raising, but the scouts were disappointed. As one scout’s mother explained the next morning, “They thought all the candidates missed the mark. The park isn’t just a Fleischmanns' asset but a community one, that being the entire MCS community. The boys want the supervisor to recognize that and be willing to devote time energy and assets to that issue. They wanted a stronger commitment to something which means so much to the town school population, especially after all the talk about needing to give kids here more opportunities.”

Friday
Sep232011

Margaretville's New Normal

 

Here's my post from Upstater today on post-flood Margaretville.... I found it really hard to write because, well, just because. 

 

The flood. Life in Margaretville now feels measured in before and after. And, the after I’ve been avoiding writing about. Nothing feels profound enough. I can never say enough and my take is not important enough. So where to start? Maybe with the piles of rubbish stacked on Route 28. Among the tires and shipping pallets, lumber, even an intact round wooden picnic table, was the cerulean blue siding of the Valkyrian Motel in Fleischmanns. It floated downstream, killing the one woman left inside. The sight is incredibly sad, the building reduced to stacks of kindling.  The temporary flood dump in Arkville is testimony to the destruction: mountains of debris – refrigerators, furniture and trees all separated out. Or, there’s the person who set fire to his building on Main Street last weekend to collect on insurance. Everything feels transformed and oddly normal at the same time. But, when the air raid siren for the volunteer fire department goes off, you get an inner quaking of not-again.

The grocery store: gone, CVS collapsed and a row of shops on Main Street condemned with police tape around the doors that now stand perpetually open. One of the biggest issues here is the housing stock. Not the kind of fancy for second home-owners, but apartments and trailers, places lived in by the folks with the least. If that condemned row on Main Street is torn down (along with its 25 apartments) rebuilding there will be virtually impossible. Building standards would require it to be at least 8 feet high, the height of the highest flood.

The day after the flood I found an undamaged red, white and blue striped candle in the Freshtown parking lot. Now that candle is just the sort of thing I’d have thought tacky the day before, but among the slabs of torn-up asphalt, it seemed like hope itself. I put it at the foot of the store’s mascot, a chainsaw bear I wrote about in my first post on Margaretville. If anything is a marker of pre or post, it’s that the bear remains, and the area is tenacious in its rebuilding.

The region is open and businesses need support. If you love (or even like) Upstate New York, this is the time to visit. Leaves are turning, foliage beginning to take that brilliant hue of fall, and money is needed. Things are back to normal, or whatever the new normal is. And, despite the lingering raw feelings, businesses all along Route 28 are open – including most in Margaretville, Arkville and Fleischmanns.

Wednesday
Jul132011

Lodge, Cabin, Inn, Motels – sleeping in the sticks 

Phoenicia Lodge

From this week's Catskill Mountain News:

 

Drive along Route 28 and the signs for cottages and motels roll by. The places are easy to ignore, some turned into apartments with the kind of rural neglect – car jacked up on blocks, lawn gone to weed – that suggests better days. It’s enough to make you think that the best of times are no longer these times in our corner of the Catskills. But, no. Over the past five years a small renaissance has started, with people redoing those bygone institutions of Catskills’ vacations. This renaissance has even dovetailed with the recession and weathered it.

The downturn did turn on the Catskills and in some ways turned out old visitors – but at the same time it’s brought new ones, and now a few years later seems to be strengthening the local economy. Being only a few hours from the city means tourist who would have flown to a vacation spot are staying closer to home. Many of these new guests are turning to more traditional inns and B&Bs, a shift that’s corresponded with an influx of new owners whose more polished approach appeals to these visitors. Call it a bit of Proust and nostalgia for innkeeper and traveler alike, but both are taken with these places that recall the past, a past that’s been updated with better plumbing and insulation, flat screen TVs, white walls and linens. 

At the Breezy Hill Inn (“Luxury in the Country” its slogan) the owners Michelle and Alan Sidrane sit on the screened porch and describe what they were looking for in their own travels: upscale inns and B&Bs, only there was little to be found here. Instead, the couple set out to build the place where they wanted to stay. Just how personal is obvious in the details down to the antiques in the rooms. The color scheme is based on her favorite pottery pattern whose hues repeat throughout the inn.

“It’s about coddling,” Michelle Sidrane explains, describing the Breezy Hill ethos with a high-end exercise room, steam room and lavish breakfasts. And, the inn’s busiest season? Not summer but winter when they’re booked straight from Christmas to mid-April. “We’re getting young families that used to go out West on a regular ski trip, looking for places to stay for a ski weekend at a more reasonable rate.” They’ve even had guests book the entire inn for holiday weekends.

The Sidrane’s is a very different approach from Sara Loughlin and Brian Batista’s at the Phoenicia Lodge. In their late 30s they treat inn-keeping like contemporary pioneers. They handle everything. On a quiet Monday (their “Saturday”) they’re both dressed in faded denim, work boots with white iPod earbuds dangling like necklaces around their throats. He’s mowing and she painting a cottage. The couple happened into the motel and cabins almost as a dare. They were looking for a place upstate, but not a motel – or a new career path. When they saw the place though they couldn’t stop thinking about it –and they had no idea what they were getting into. The local SBA loan officer even advised against it, but it’s been a huge success – busy now in summer and winter. They’ve replaced dark wood paneling with pale walls and new linens, and Sara stresses that this isn’t about luxury.

“We’re not trying to be upscale. There’s a need for a low-budget vacation.” People come to hike and fish, like they themselves did before moving. “We’re modest people,” she says, “and having a swanky place wouldn’t feel right. It doesn’t fit the way we live. Here in our region of the Catskills the middle hasn’t been done so well, so we saw what we could do. What might be possible.” What might be possible includes restoring original vintage features to give the lodge a Mad Men feel that fits not only the buildings’ era but the zeitgeist now.

Running the Mountain Brook Inn was even more of a jump for Gary Simmons. His home was in L.A. and his lodging experience more along the lines of staying at the Waldorf and The Plaza. His job had him virtually living in hotels, and there he studied the beds and how they were made, storing up the information for his future, not that he knew the Mountain Brook was his future. “And, not that this is a hotel,” he says in his Southern drawl as he runs around on a Monday afternoon dressed in a button-down shirt and coveralls, his version of a suit for the office. “Far from it. I love hotels but it’s definitely not that.”

The Mountain Brook is a motel – quaint and rustic on the edge of the Little Delaware. He found the place when visiting a friend after working on a show at Rockefeller Center. The Inn had been empty for two years and long on the market, but he knew it was his destiny. He also knew that destiny was going to take some work and jokes that he moved in with only an electric screwdriver. Since, he’s replaced and reworked just about everything – adding wainscoting and soundproofing and painting over the wood paneling that made the rooms claustrophobic. Now they have sitting rooms with deep sofas and inviting bedrooms with plush linens. 

The Mountain Brook's bridge

The three properties operate at different ends of the spectrum but taken with the Roxbury and the Hidden Inn’s re-opening show the vitality of Catskills’ lodging. Patty Cullen, Delaware County’s tourism director, explains: “There are a few trends driving visitors to the Catskills – first the growth in destination weddings [most of this summer’s guests at Breezy Hill and the Mountain Brook are attending weddings.] With a couple of events on one weekend, all the lodging in neighboring towns gets booked up. 

Additionally, with the growth of the locavore movement we’re attracting a younger audience interested in food and farming as well as getting outdoors. There are also second-homeowners’ friends who are visiting longer and opting not to stay with their friends. In all this, people are looking online, reading reviews before even booking. A business’s online presence is hugely important in the choices visitors make.”

This is something the Sidranes and Batistas both attest to, and all three businesses agree that once someone comes, if they have a good experience they will return. All three properties have developed a huge audience of fans and returning visitors – visitors these inns and motels have all cultivated since opening. 

Breezy Hill