Bashing the Borscht Belt: A Catskills rebranding effort ladles it on

Above: A screenshot from the website of the Catskill Park Resource Foundation, which is seeking to mount a $5 million campaign to rebrand the Catskills region. The CPRF is currently running a contest seeking Catskills slogans; the winner will receive $1,500.

All press is good press, or so the saying goes.  By that logic, Catskills denizens ought to be pleased with the results of a high-profile effort by a group of local businesspeople to rebrand the region.

But after a recent New York Times story about the rebranding effort featured a lot of handwringing about how tarnished the region's reputation is, some local tourism promoters are wondering if dwelling publicly on the image of crumbling Borscht Belt hotels and schlocky comedy is doing more harm than good.

After the Times story came out on Monday night, Herb Clark, vice president of the Sullivan County Visitors' Association, fired off a testy email to one of the PR agents handling the campaign, writing that the article "seems to take a very negative aspect of the Catskills and highlight it."

"I wasn't particularly enthralled with that at all. I think we need to stress more the positives," Clark told the Watershed Post.

Clark wasn't alone. Mary Beth Silano, executive director of the Delaware County Chamber of Commerce, put it more bluntly.

"The bashing has got to stop," she said. "It's repetitive, it's hurting, it's damaging. It's completely against what we're trying to accomplish at the tourism promotion agencies." 

"Rubble, brush and ghosts"

The force behind the Catskills' most recent effort at regional branding is a new nonprofit called the Catskill Park Resource Foundation (CPRF), the brainchild of local developer Dean Gitter.

Last fall, Gitter -- the developer behind the Emerson Resort and a long-planned (but as yet unbuilt) luxury ski resort near the Belleayre Ski Center -- announced the creation of the foundation and his intent to raise $5 million for a Catskills rebranding campaign.

Back in November, Gitter had some tough words about the existing Catskills "brand," which appeared in the Daily Freeman:

“I’ve been up here a long time,” he said. “I know how many folks in New York, as well as The New York Times, continue to confuse us with the long-gone, formerly decrepit Borscht Belt. I know that many in the metropolitan area actually express trepidation on coming here. You may find this hard to believe, but we’ve done focus group interviews in the city in which people have expressed the view of the Catskills as something out of the film ‘Deliverance.’”

Since then, Gitter has stepped back from the board of the Catskill Park Resource Foundation, but continues to speak on its behalf. Earlier this week, New York Times columnist Peter Applebome quoted Gitter as the foundation's spokesperson in a story about the new foundation's rebranding campaign. Here's what the word "Catskills" means to people, Applebome writes:

Now, unfortunately, they evoke the past and present of Concord Road in Sullivan County. The Concord, once the largest hotel in the Catskills, with a dining room that seated 3,000, and, during the 1940s, a 35-piece orchestra performing Rachmaninoff and Tchaikovsky, closed in 1998. A proposed $600 million entertainment, housing and gambling complex that is the latest plan to revive it exists only on paper. And for now, there is just a dismal, fenced-in expanse of rubble, brush and ghosts.

The CPRF's own website doesn't do much to dispel the image of boarded-up bungalows and crumbling megahotels. In its mission statement, the foundation paints a dismal picture of the region:

The image of the Catskills, in the minds and imaginations of people in the metropolitan New York area and in the wider nation beyond, is unappealing at best, negative at worst. A persistent identification of the region with the no-longer extant and formally decrepit Borscht Belt is pervasive.

The proposed cure: Branding.

A major pubic [sic] relations and marketing effort to create and promote such a brand, an effort free of sectional and political bias, must be mounted.

Eric Frances, the current president of the Catskill Park Resource Foundation and chief financial officer of Bethel Woods, did not return a call for comment on this story.

A message gets mangled: Press dubs CPRF show "flood benefit"

The inaugural event of the rebranding effort is a benefit comedy show at Belleayre on August 25 featuring former Borscht Belt comedian Susie Essman, now better known for her portrayal of Curb Your Enthusiasm's Susie Greene than for getting yuks from the crowd at the Nevele.

The money raised at the benefit will go to the Catskill Park Resource Foundation and its rebranding campaign, said spokesperson Cristyne Nicholas, whose PR firm is working for the CPRF.

But with the benefit show falling so near the anniversary of the Irene floods, and foundation spokespeople talking incessantly about the damage Irene did to the Catskills last year, the show has been mistaken more than once for a flood relief benefit. Several media pieces about Essman's upcoming show have called it an Irene benefit, including a recent interview Essman did with the Weather Channel's Al Roker, titled "Susie Essman Helps Irene Victims."

"This summer, Essman's doing a benefit concert for victims of Hurricane Irene," Roker says in the clip, later gushing to Essman, "This is really great what you're doing, because a lot of folks, about Hurricane Irene, they say, oh, it was hyped, it was no big deal."

Essman doesn't exactly claim to be raising money for flood victims -- but she doesn't really deny it, either.

"There was a lot of damage, a lot of people lost their homes," Essman replies, later saying, "We're going to raise money to bring awareness to the area."

Nicholas said that the Catskill Park Resource Foundation hasn't been promoting Essman's show as a benefit for flood victims.

"It's not a benefit for Hurricane Irene, it's a benefit for the Catskill Park Resource Foundation," she said. "I can't control what people are going to say sometimes. When we write it out in press releases, we're very clear about it."

Nicholas does see it as a general benefit for the region, though.

"All boats will rise with the tide. It will indirectly benefit all residents of the Catskills. If we can get more money pumped into the Catskills, then everybody benefits," she said.

Nicholas also took issue with the idea that the New York Times article shone a negative spotlight on the region.

"I've gotten so many emails thanking us, happy that the Times is focused on the Catskills. Overwhelmingly, the response was favorable that the Times is promoting the Catskills as a destination," she said.

A $5 million promise

The foundation has not yet raised $5 million for the campaign, or anything close to it, Nicholas said. Her own PR firm is currently working pro bono on the campaign, she said, and the group's meager presence on Facebook and Twitter is being run not by the PR firm but by an upstate volunteer.

Nicholas said her PR firm specializes in "destinations in distress."

"We've done a lot of work in the Gulf Coast after the BP oil spill, in New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina," she said.

Although the $5 million has yet to materialize, the promise of access to a massive marketing budget is enticing for local tourism promoters and may be blunting some of the CPRF's more pointed critics.

Jim Thomson, who chairs the Delaware County Industrial Development Agency, said that while he's troubled by the CPRF's approach so far, $5 million to promote the Catskills would be a huge boost to existing marketing efforts. Delaware County's annual tourism budget is $90,000, Thomson said, with an additional $40,000 in matching funds from the state if Albany is feeling friendly that year.

"I don't want to pick a scrap with the foundation. If that's a way to raise funding to promote the region, so much the better," he said. "I question whether the Catskills needs to be rebranded, but I understand you have to go through that to raise money."

The Catskill Park Resouce Foundation isn't the only group currently seeking to promote the region as a whole. "Pure Catskills," a campaign centered on local food and farms, is run by the Watershed Agricultural Council. I Love New York, the statewide tourism campaign, funds a cooperative marketing effort between four counties, online at

But most of the region's promotion efforts are centered on a county or region, because of the way funding is doled out. For every region, there's a different Catskills: the Great Northern Catskills of Greene County, the Great Western Catskills of Delaware County, the Central Catskills in the middle of Catskill Park, the Sullivan County Catskills, and Ulster County -- which often gets lumped in with the tonier Hudson Valley. Schoharie County, at the northern edge of the Catskills, often gets left out of Catskills regional promotion altogether.

Deep economic disparities persist between the counties that make up the Catskills, and are reflected in the funds available to lure people to the region. In 2012, the Ulster County executive budget sets aside roughly $850,000 of the county's general fund for tourism -- almost ten times what Delaware County spends.

Are the Catskills still Borscht?

Decades ago, the Catskills was practically synonymous with hotels like Grossinger's and the Concord. But for years, local tourism experts say, the Catskills has meant nature, farms and fresh air. And the events and attractions that are drawing people up to the mountains these days have little connection to the long-gone Borscht era.

Town by town, the Catskills are already being remade by a new generation of artists, enthusiasts and entrepreneurs. Between the Phoenicia Festival of the Voice and the deceptively low-key Mount Tremper Arts Festival, the backwoods-boho town of Shandaken is fast becoming a world-class hotspot for the performing arts. Teeny-tiny Roscoe has made a name for itself as "Trout Town USA," with sparkling streams for those who like to fly-fish in Zen-like serenity, and a campy annual Trout Parade for those who would rather strut through town wielding massive papier-mache fish heads. In sleepy Roxbury, a couple has made big waves in the hotel industry by transforming a once-ordinary motel into an undeniably swag temple to '70s television. And in Fleischmanns, where a group of Shaolin warrior monks is busy erecting a temple to the art of kung fu, Hasidim are rubbing shoulders with the Wu-Tang Clan.

Silano said when most people think of the Catskills these days, they think of panoramic views and clear mountain streams, not Dirty Dancing and Simon Says.

"It's not considered the Borscht Belt anymore," she said. "Our amusement park is our outdoor recreation. The vistas, the hiking trails, the waterways, the driving tours, the history -- that's what we all have in common."

Even Clark, whose Sullivan County tourism agency's territory sits squarely in the old Borscht Belt, said that's not what the Catskills means to the current generation of tourists.

"That has long since gone away. Now we are more of the foodbasket for metropolitan New York, we are their water supply. All of our natural assets have made the Catskills popular since way before the Borscht Belt," he said.

Thomson said he spoke to Gitter shortly after the Times article came out, in the hopes that the CPRF might start talking about the Catskills that's alive and kicking now.

"I said, 'Dean, let's talk about the positive stuff that's going on. Have you been to Margaretville lately? There's all these new businesses opening, there's kayaks on top of car roofs,'" Thomson said, pointing to the recent opening of three reservoirs for boating as an opportunity that the region is seizing. "People have clearly embraced the Pepacton and they're making that into an economic engine, and God bless them, they're doing the right thing."