It was late August of 1968, and the people of Sullivan County, NY were all abuzz about the latest development in a long list of attempts to save their sagging economy.
The county’s Golden Age of Catskills tourism had ended three years before, and although no one likely realized yet how bad things would get before they got better, county officials and resort owners were trying desperately to right the sinking ship. True to form, however, all efforts to do so had been continually thwarted by a difference of opinion as to what course to follow.
There were many in the county who felt an industrial park was the surest path to an economic resurgence, and the county had formed an Industrial Park Corporation to pursue that. Those involved in the poultry industry, which had for several years been the number two industry in the county behind tourism, were pushing for a project that would provide a boost to their business, which, they reasoned, would ultimately benefit the county, as well.
And those associated with the resort industry, which even in its much contracted state was still directly or indirectly responsible for 95 out of every 100 jobs in the county, wanted to direct all resources toward the construction of a convention center that would enable the county to better compete for off-season tourism business by attracting conventions, more and more of which were being held in winter.
Despite the longstanding disputes among the divided parties, a meeting of the county’s 27-member Overall Economic Development Program Committee on August 21 produced a unanimous vote in favor of backing the construction of a convention center within the county.
The meeting followed months of studies and public hearings. “The proposal now faces a decision by the Board of Supervisors, which is expected to be called into special session by the end of the month,” reported Gil Weisinger in the Times Herald-Record on August 22, 1968.
Weisinger noted that the unanimous vote followed the presentation of a report by two firms the county had hired to study remedies for its economic woes. The companies, The Washington Group and the IPD Corporation, had come to the conclusion that if a convention hall was built, “the whole economy would be benefited by attracting vacationers, thus smoothing out fluctuations in the hotel business.”
Weisinger wrote that the report concluded that a convention hall “could be designed to cater to a wide range of activities, and besides conventions could also be used for cultural events, entertainment, and sporting activities.”
The motion to support the convention hall idea and forward it to the Board of Supervisors, was, ironically, made by a man who had long been the champion of another approach altogether.
“Hiram H. Frank, a North Branch poultryman and one of the largest egg producers in the state, bypassed other projects which would benefit the poultry industry for the sake of a project which researchers said would benefit the whole county,” Weisinger wrote. “Set aside, at least temporarily, by Frank were such projects as a poultry waste plant and other related programs.”
Another erstwhile opponent of the convention hall idea who spoke enthusiastically in favor of it at the meeting was James Elliott of Roscoe, who headed up the county’s Industrial Park Corporation, which had been pushing such a project as the panacea for the county’s economic downturn. “But nevertheless, the hall received Elliott’s blessing,” Weisinger reported.
Of course, no matter how logical it seems, nothing is ever easy to accomplish in Sullivan County, and it was not without considerable political maneuvering and squabbling that the Board of Supervisors eventually approved the convention hall project, banking on the prospect of obtaining $2 million in federal funding for construction.
Not everyone was happy with the Board’s vote, and the Liberty Register reported in its September 5 edition that “Small Towns Lose in Convention Vote.” The Register reported that the Supervisors of the larger towns, who under the new weighted voting system could dominate proceedings, rammed through the convention hall proposal, as well as approving the application for $2 million in federal funds, which the county would match in order to finance construction. The Supervisors of almost all of the smaller towns, except for Board Chair Steven Stetka of Cochecton, strongly opposed both proposals.
On July 10, 1969, ground was broken along Route 17 just northwest of Monticello for the project, with county officials being joined by State Senator Warren Anderson and stage and screen star Robert Alda (the father of Alan Alda) in the monumental ceremony. The convention center, they announced, would be open for business by the
summer of 1971, and would create nearly 1,500 new jobs by 1975.
Obviously, despite this auspicious occasion, the convention center was never built, as the construction bids came in substantially higher than the $4 million budget, and no amount of negotiation or compromise on the scale of the project could make it realistic to move forward.
Photo: State Senator Warren M. Anderson came to Sullivan County to speak at the groundbreaking ceremony for the new convention center that was never built.