In the ’70s, the Catskills had some golden years: The upstate New York mountains were idyllic, relaxing, and very monied. Today, driving up from the eastern escarpment of the north end of the Catskills, signs of decay abound: broken windows, empty businesses, and other signs of dereliction. It’s not a surprising sight for Catskills’ Greene County, whose often-remote communities display their brief prosperity and long stagnation.
But a dedicated group of locals is committed to bringing the area back to its former glory, though updated for 2019. Resorts are reopening, and a big focus of the push has been on dining, with locals and New York City expats opening restaurants that appeal to a younger generation. It’s seemingly paying off, as tourism is growing: Traveler spending in the county grew 4.2 percent from 2015 to 2016.
Tannersville, a village of Hunter near the popular ski mountain that has become a destination for New Yorkers, is ground zero for the change. Drive along Main Street into downtown, and a stunning reversal from the degradation starts to occur. Buildings have been painted with bright, inviting colors, and the number of new galleries, restaurants, and businesses far surpasses the old. A main street once dominated by gift shops and empty buildings today hosts wine tastings, art openings, and realty offices.
There’s Twin Peaks, a doughnut and coffee shop that opened in 2013 and has become an Instagram sensation, Maggie’s Krooked Cafe, focused on organic fare, and Last Chance Antiques and Cheese Cafe, a specialty stop for local cheese and craft beer. By the time roadside burger joint Mama’s Boy Burgers appears on the far side of town, the transformation is clear: Tannersville — and its restaurant scene — is thriving.
Much of the credit can be handed to The Hunter Foundation, a local 501C3 non-profit that supplements significant private donations with state grants to purchase and renovate many of the area’s blighted properties, as well as to support other efforts to improve quality of life in the region. Founded in 1997 by a group of local business owners, it has since purchased, renovated, and either leased or resold over 35 businesses and 100 homes, all to make villages such as Tannersville and Hunter within the Town of Hunter more prosperous and friendlier to live in. It has also supported the efforts of local artist Elena Patterson to refresh what was once a drab stretch of road with her bold and colorful murals.
The Foundation has invested heavily specifically in Tannersville, which also acts as its base of operations. According to co-director Sean Mahoney, this is partially a matter of practicality. Tannersville had a lot of need for both business and homeowner assistance, and it’s “a very consolidated experience,” he says. There’s a walkable main street, plentiful parking, and close proximity to major roads and Hunter Mountain — and thus to crowds.
The financial assistance has worked to ease the burden of opening a business, and restaurants have taken advantage. Take Mama’s Boy Burgers: It occupies the site of long-running roadside ice cream stand Smiley’s and was purchased in 2011 by Hunter Foundation and Michael Koegel, a former Manhattan television producer who moved to the area looking for a change of pace.
Since opening in 2015, the restaurant’s nostalgic look and Shake Shack-inspired takes on classic fast food burgers have been a hit with winter and summer tourists. But more importantly, according to Koegel, it has become a regular lunch spot for local families and contractors, who sustain it during lulls. Though Tannersville has become a hot spot for ski bums and snowboarders, the restaurants can’t survive if they only cater to them, owners say. Businesses also do things like offer free Wifi, which is difficult to find in the area, in hopes of luring in locals.
“If we don’t get that crowd,” Koegel says, “we’re dead.”
That local crowd is itself growing: After almost a century of decline, Tannersville’s population grew for the first time in decades on the 2010 census, mirroring general trends in the Town of Hunter as well. The Foundation has played a part in opening or expanding over a dozen businesses in the village, including antiques stores, hotels, and restaurants. Property sales have risen as a result: In 2012, there were just five sales, and in 2018, there were 23 in the first three-quarters alone.
Older businesses are thriving alongside this growth. Last Chance Tavern originally opened in 1971 as an antiques shop. Since David Kashman took over from his parents in 2008, the business has expanded to include a large tavern room, whiskey bar, and live music. The larger space hosts private events, rehearsal dinners, even weddings.
The menu has also changed to accommodate more modern tastes, with craft beer and local meat, as well as organic vegetables sourced from nearby Fromer Market Gardens, a recent addition to the community funded in part by the Foundation. Kashman credits his younger, “more diverse” customers with changing the way that he and other locals do business.
“We have definitely gotten healthier,” he says. “We don’t fry anything anymore. We try to use local ingredients.”
Tannersville’s revitalization mirrors what’s happening in the rest of the Catskills. Throughout the region’s 35 high peaks and nearly 6,000 square miles, hoteliers are reopening resorts that directly appeal to millennials and a younger generation.
Susan Kleinfelder and Charlene Holdride are one example. Transplant Kleinfelder and born-and-raised local Holdride began roasting coffee when they operated what is now the Catskill Mountain Country Store for the Foundation. Their husbands (now Charlene’s ex-) had always wanted a doughnut place in town, and so all four went in on Twin Peaks Donuts and Coffee, renovating a century-old property on the edge of town into a popular influencer destination.
From behind the counter, Kleinfelder enjoys the conversation with so many different people, and what it says about the future of the town, she says. “Are they visiting, or are they interested in moving?” she says. More and more often, she says, they’re staying a day in town, or even a night.
“There are more businesses, more to do in town, and it brings more people through,” she says.
In a market as small as Tannersville’s — where the population is under 600 — every business has to buttress every other. “I wanted to make sure I wasn’t standing on anybody else’s toes,” Mama’s Boy’s Koegel says.
This results in better variety of food, plus more to do. Last Chance hosts bands throughout the year, while local nonprofits like 23Arts bring award-winning jazz and classical musicians to town for free concerts. In upcoming months, The Orpheum Film & Performing Arts Center, operated by the Catskill Mountain Foundation, will host a performance by the American Ballet Theatre Studio Company, and in the summer, there will be special arts programs for local kids.
All of this is the result of collaboration between concerned locals and those willing to make an investment in this community — less a trickle-down than a building up. Mahoney ties growth in nearby Hunter and Haines Falls, with new hotels, restaurants, and other businesses, to a greater willingness on the part of locals to invest in their communities.
“Where once it was a risky proposition to start a business, we’re seeing a lot more investment now,” Mahoney says. “We’re hoping that investment in Tannersville has a proximity effect on other towns. And it’s happening.”
Robert Rubsam is a freelance writer, editor, and photographer from New York’s Hudson Valley.