By WADE LAWRENCE
In some ways, it might be thought strange that I was asked to write a piece on my vision for the future of this area. I wasn’t born or raised here, didn’t attend school here and didn’t raise a family here. My vision is indelibly colored by what I have seen elsewhere and my dreams for the future of the cultural center for which I work.
But in my four years as the director of The Museum at Bethel Woods, I have developed a fondness for the region and an appreciation for the ongoing challenges it faces. How can the area improve its economy and provide meaningful employment opportunities for its citizens while respecting the historically rural nature of the place? And what can we do that will give Sullivan County young people a compelling reason to stay here and contribute to a bright future?
The answer is that we need to move toward a year-round economy based on heritage tourism and the arts (in the broadest sense of the word). And one of our greatest assets in this respect is that the whole world knows Sullivan County as the home of the 1969 Woodstock Music and Art Fair. Over four decades later, three generations of global citizens still find inspiration in visiting one of the symbolic epicenters of the ‘60s.
It is this asset that the Bethel Woods Center for the Arts has started building on, by preserving the site of the original concert for these and future generations. It has drawn from that inspiration to create a world-class museum, concert venue and art center at Bethel Woods to honor and continue that legacy of creativity and self-expression.
But there is also an opportunity, not only for Bethel Woods, but for the vibrant arts community throughout our area, to create a new legacy, which promotes and fosters civic engagement and an appreciation for the power of music, visual arts, dance and other forms of artistic endeavor to enrich the human spirit and, in some small way, to change the world.
Bethel Woods cannot change this region by itself. By recognizing and celebrating the historical heritage of the area—the scale and charm of the many villages and hamlets of the county and the character and economic importance of the family farms and small businesses—we can attract and accommodate visitors to our area and improve their experience while they are here. Our future, in my opinion, isn’t in replacing what we have with something bigger, more commercial, or more “touristy.” Instead, I see a Sullivan County and surrounding area that uses historic preservation principals to adapt old structures for new uses and builds upon the human scale of the existing villages and communities. At the same time, it can develop the modern infrastructure needed to support a new, year-round tourism industry in a way that respects the rural nature of the region.
The model has changed. Sullivan County and the greater Catskills region will never again see the resorts that were the mainstay of the regional economy in the first half of the last century. We need to replace the summer/winter boom/bust cycle with cultural opportunities, services and attractions and jobs that last all year and offer employment stability and things for our residents—year-round and seasonal—something to do.
My vision? A place where prosperity is not seasonal, where residents and visitors can find expression for their hopes and dreams, and where the past not only lives side-by-side with the present, but is a vibrant part of it.
[Wade Lawrence is the director of The Museum at Bethel Woods.]