A ski resort is rebranded as ultra-exclusive and some locals feel left out

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Windham Mountain, a ski resort just over two hours north of New York City, was in need of a renovation. The elevator lines were too long. The quality of food and drink had decreased.

So when word spread that a new ownership group would be taking over, the change was initially welcome.

But then the new owners, led by the founder of a national restaurant chain and scion of a hotel group, unveiled a slick website laying out their plans for an ambitious rebrand in October. Windham Mountain would now be known as the Windham Mountain Club. The resort promised skiers “an exceptional time in thin air.” The club's restaurants would receive a “gastronomic shine.”

Memberships to access the new amenities would come at a steep price: $175,000 for those who joined immediately and $200,000 for those who waited until March. If current members, some of whom paid as little as $25,000 for their spots, did not choose to sign up, their memberships would be canceled on May 1.

“It's no secret that they've managed to distance themselves and, frankly, piss off a lot of people,” said Nick Bove, owner of Windham Mountain Outfitters, a local gear store.

The changes at Windham Mountain, apparently designed to attract a wealthier New York City clientele, typify the Catskills' accelerated gentrification in recent years, particularly after the coronavirus pandemic drove many city residents to move upstate.

Chip Seamans, who has been president of the mountain's ski resort for more than a decade, said in an interview that the new owners' initial investment had exceeded $70 million. The ownership group is led by Sandy Beall, founder of the Ruby Tuesday restaurant chain, and Webb Wilson, heir to the Holiday Inn fortune.

“The Catskills are hot,” Seamans, 65, said. “The Catskills are happening right now. Sandy Beall and her partners saw that and wanted to be a part of it.”

In September, Windham residents circulated a petition on Change.org asking city leaders to block the mountain's transformation into a semi-private club. Its authors hoped to prevent the city from becoming “an enclave for a few wealthy families from the south of the state.”

“This is a bad plan for everyone,” the petition reads.

As ski season approached, that plan began to take shape. A popular bike park, closed in October, will not reopen. The mountain golf course will be renovated and will be exclusive to members. And a $10 million restaurant renovation includes an Italian restaurant that charges $30 for spaghetti and meatballs.

Members will also face annual dues that start at $9,000 and increase each year “as more services come online,” according to an FAQ document distributed to existing members last month and obtained by The New York Times.

The old memberships provided access to a members-only lodge, among other benefits, and had been offered for about 15 years. In recent years, the price increased to $125,000 with annual fees of $3,900, but access to the slope was not dependent on membership status, so there was no need to pay that premium. Many loyal Windham skiers simply relied on season passes, which cost about $1,400, and paid about $1,000 for locker rentals.

Season passes and lift tickets will still be available for purchase under the new plan, but the goal, according to the membership document, is to limit public access to ensure priority for members.

There are about 1,800 ski homes in the Windham Mountain area. Opponents of the plan fear that residents and visitors alike could be left without access to the mountain.

“The townspeople definitely feel betrayed by this,” said Gregory Santollo, 38, who has a house on the back side of the mountain. Santollo has been snowboarding at Windham since he was 10 years old, but he said that if plans proceeded as announced, he would abandon the mountain and head to Vermont.

Seamans dismissed concerns that the new owners hoped to completely privatize the complex.

“I assure people that they will be able to access the mountain,” he said.

For this ski season, which began Nov. 24, much remains unchanged except for one new rule: During peak season, between January and March, skiers and snowboarders who want to use the mountain on Saturdays must purchase a pass. for two days, which could cost up to $450. A single-day weekend ticket would have cost about $175 last year.

That presents a problem for Windham, a city that relies on so-called “weeks” to boost its economy.

The mountain is just a short drive from New York City, New Jersey and Connecticut, giving it an advantage over ski resorts in Vermont or New Hampshire. It was also long considered more affordable.

Bove, 58, said nearly all of Windham's 1,700 permanent residents earn their income from mountain-related activities. People who come to ski or snowboard (and in the summer, walk and bike) frequent the shops and restaurants on Main Street.

“There's no other way to look at it: Windham Mountain is by far the biggest economic driver of this town,” Bove said.

Ryan Gutierrez, 44, who lives at the foot of the mountain and runs a local painting business, said he doesn't think people will complain until the plan is fully developed. Plus, Gutiérrez noted, some of the benefits are already available: There wasn't a sushi restaurant in town before, he said, and now there is one at the shelter.

“The city is not losing, that's my opinion,” he said, adding that new management could help his business. “Nothing has really changed and all I hear is good things.”

But the reaction on social networks to the brand change was immediate. After the club's carefully edited Instagram posts were flooded with negative comments, comments were disabled.

On other social platforms, the mountain's many fans have lamented the impending changes to its identity as an accessible mountain. They have especially objected to the “rarified air” language, which has since been removed from the website.

Seamans said the resort had not attempted to “publish anything that would make people angry or insult them” and that the website had been changed to reflect that.

Santollo, who met his wife in the ski lift line at Windham Mountain and proposed to her there in 2008, said the rebranding didn't take into account the personal connection many people felt to the mountain.

“We feel offended,” Santollo said. “We all make mistakes with social media, but it was a big failure. “We found it very disrespectful.”

Josh Fromer, a snowboard coach and substitute teacher at a Windham high school, grew up in nearby Hunter and said his family first moved to the area in the 1860s. He also works in an auto shop and produces nights local comedy shows, embodying what he described as “the hustle and bustle in a mountain town.”

Windham has been slowly changing over the years, he said, increasingly serving high-wage people in the city. But this new attempt at a luxury ski experience seems over the top.

“I'm the definition of a local, and I don't see the appetite for this kind of thing,” Fromer, 39, said. “These are not the type of people who would spend that kind of money.” . And if they were willing to spend that kind of money to go skiing, they would be in Verbier, Chamonix, Aspen or somewhere like that.”

And although Windham has been gentrifying for years, Fromer said the town had not yet been overrun by high-end retailers and luxury services. He fears that the mountain's transformation will accelerate a change in that direction and that locals will be excluded.

“There won’t be five generations of families that can justify staying here like mine has,” he said. “To be honest, as someone who has a genuine interest in the well-being of this community, it breaks my heart and scares me.”

The Catskills have been experiencing a “renaissance” for several decades, according to Marisa Scheinfeld, a visual historian. She published “The Borscht Belt,” which illustrated the region’s transition from its heyday as a vacation destination for Jewish families in the mid-20th century to now.

But the pandemic accelerated the transformation, as people began traveling north and buying property. Between June 2019 and May 2022, the number of homes available for sale in Greene County, which includes Windham, fell from 595 to 213, contributing to an affordable housing crisis.

“It's an American epidemic, where we hear about the next hot spot, so we go there, and prices go up,” Scheinfeld said. “It presents these dilemmas for locals who can't afford it.”

Optimists, including Bove, hope the club can find a middle ground and a way to be successful.

“We would certainly be a completely different city without Windham Mountain,” he said.



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