By Nathan Mayberg
BETHEL June 2, 2006 Alan Gerrys gift to Sullivan County wooed a cadre of reporters from the Hudson Valley, New York City and the Associated Press during a preview tour this week of the much-hyped Bethel Woods Center for the Arts.
The grandiose architecture of the 4,800-seat pavilion (and room for 12,000 seats on the lawn), a 40,000-square-foot interpretive center, museum, events gallery, outdoor amphitheatre, state-of-the-art theatre and market sheds clearly have made this one of the largest projects to have ever been built in the Catskills. Gerry and many others hope it will ignite a rebirth in the county.
Indeed, thats why Gerry built it. He said he is trying to improve the economic situation in one of the poorest counties of the state.
This is a new beginning for the county and all of our people, he told the journalists. We believe the county has hit rock bottom and is on the way up.
The actual idea to use the site of the original Woodstock for a performing arts center came 10 years ago from his daughter Robyn. It was just after Gerrys cable TV company Cablevision merged with Time Warner. Gerry was looking for a way to stimulate the economy in the area.
A decade later, the total construction is estimated to cost between 70 and 75 million dollars. Gerry has poured between 55 and 60 million dollars of his own money into the development. New York State has chipped in $15 million.
Yet thats not even enough, evidently.
We dont plan to break even, he said.
But Gerry added that it was important to him to build something of permanence. He told his architects, led by Paul Westlake, to make this last 1,000 years.
Gerry has taken a direct role in all of the construction and planning. He has overseen many of the smallest details of each building.
This is a start of something that will continue to grow, he said.
During a one-on-one interview, Gerry said that the project has given him a satisfying feeling of accomplishment.
He hopes the center can attract people from the metropolitan area to discover the beauty of the Catskills and buy second homes. He said the area still offers a great quality of life, with its lakes, rivers and aesthetics.
People can own their piece of America. Land is still affordable.
Of course, the area has its problems, too.
There is no silver bullet that will cure the county, he admitted. This goes a long way in attracting people that have never been here before. It will give it notoriety and help the county re-establish itself.
Born in New York City, his family moved to Liberty when he was a toddler. Gerry attended a two-room schoolhouse in Ferndale and was a Marine for four years. When he returned home, he attended an electronics school on the GI bill. He began repairing television sets, put up antennas, and before long, he owned his own national cable company. When he finally merged with Time Warner, he owned the largest private company in the country.
Meanwhile, in August 1969, a concert happened that would change the world and his life.
Gerry has some connection to Woodstock. His oldest daughter ran off to the concert and spent a week there. His older brother, Paul, took aerial photographs of the festival, which appeared on the front page of the New York Times.
Thirty-seven years later, hes still here. With the ability to live anywhere in the world, Gerry chose to stay in Liberty.
This area has been a wonderful place to grow up. I would not think twice about living anywhere else, he said.
So far, nine concert days have been announced for this summer, and more are set to come.
The New York Philharmonic with Audra McDonald and Lang Lang will open the center on July 1. Only lawn seats still remain for that show.
Ashlee Simpson will appear July 8. Phil Lesh and Trey Anastasio will play July 9. An impressive jazz festival is scheduled for July 22 and 23. George Benson, the Heath Brothers, Nellie McKay and the John Pizzarelli Big Band will perform July 22. Wynton Marsalis, Chris Botti and Dianne Reeves will take the stage July 23.
A little country will greet the county July 28 with Brad Paisley. August 9 will bring rock artists the Goo Goo Dolls and the Counting Crows. August 13 will see the reunion of Crosby, Stills, Nash and Young, who played at the original Woodstock. And August 26 will feature the Boston Pops with Faith Prince and Keith Lockhart.
Jonathan Drapkin, the Executive Director of the Gerry Foundation, said the plan was to have a total of 12-15 concert days for the summer. Talks have been ongoing with performers.
Some reporters pressed Drapkin as to what identity Bethel Woods will have. But Drapkin said the inaugural season was intentionally diverse, in order to test the market. He and Gerry both stressed that this was only the beginning. It will take time for the center to grow and reach the same acclaim as other renowned performing arts centers like Saratoga and Tanglewood.
The Gerry Foundation controls approximately 2,000 acres at the site of the original Woodstock concert on Hurd and West Shore roads in Bethel.
Jonathan Drapkin estimated that 80 percent of the traffic heading to the center will arrive via Route 17B. With only one westbound lane, traffic could be an issue, particularly on opening day. But Gerry said he was confident the state would respond accordingly if upgrades to 17B were needed.
Drapkin said that most of the concertgoers would be within an hours drive. Organizers are banking particularly on the countys summer population, which can reach up to 250,000. They are also targeting the New York City metropolitan area. However, Gerry said that lodging remains an issue.
With the July 1 opening quickly approaching, the project is almost complete. But further expansion could be on the way. For example, the bowl where the original Woodstock took place can hold 30,000 people. But it has yet to be determined how it will be utilized.
The gorgeous stonework was created by local artisan Thomas Edwards. Gerry and Drapkin stressed that local labor was integral to the projects completion. Gerry himself designed the logo for the center.