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Upstate New York Braces for Woodstock 50 Coming — or Canceling

May 25, 2019
7 min read
Upstate New York Braces for Woodstock 50 Coming — or Canceling
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Is Woodstock 50 happening or not?

Depends who you talk to, and it changes by the day — if not the hour. Fifty years after the first Woodstock festival, the putative semicentennial celebration from Aug. 16 to Aug. 18 is expected to draw a large and slightly older crowd than attended the original, including some of those who came to groove at Yasgur’s Farm in 1969. This time, the venue is Watkins Glen International, just outside of Watkins Glen, New York, a huge motorsports complex with amenities ranging from grandstands and camping facilities for tents and RVs to catering services. The event remains on the WGI calendar, but officials there declined to comment.

“I’m not speculating either way,” Schuyler County administrator Timothy O’Hearn told TPG. “There is a significant economic impact [...] associated with this event for a nine-county region. Even with the scaled-down size most recently discussed, the impact is measured in the millions [in] local businesses and ancillary support and investment in infrastructure improvement."

“We saw this as a great opportunity to use this as a way to showcase the region to the world. Whether you’re coming for the festival or not, this is a good place to visit. This is a beautiful area and there’s no better place to live or visit.”

Watkins Glen, New York. (Photo by Meagan Marchant / Shutterstock)
Watkins Glen, New York. (Photo by Meagan Marchant / Shutterstock)

As a village within a region long known as a vacation destination, there’s a long history of making visitors welcome at a variety of hostelries from basic to luxurious. And the industry was prepping for Woodstock 50 when the plans were thrown into doubt.

As soon as the festival was announced, prospective festivalgoers began making reservations. Some places were already close to full occupancy, like the upscale Harbor Hotel, hosting a wedding that weekend, and camping facilities at Watkins Glen State Park. August is a popular month for travel.

“[It's] historically always a sellout weekend for camping irrespective of the Woodstock festival,” said Fred Bonn, regional director for Finger Lakes State Parks. “This year, it booked up quickly after Woodstock was announced, much earlier than normal.”

But, he added cheerfully, if the festival doesn’t happen, “I’d expect other travelers will take their place.”

In most quarters, though, a little disappointment is mixed in with the uncertainty.

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“We would benefit indirectly with the increase in sales tax if the event were to happen,” said Luke Leszyk, mayor of the village of Watkins Glen. “I would not be able to predict how much the local businesses would benefit from the event, as many would be camping at the track for the three days.”

Seneca Lodge, a large motel-and-cabin facility with an attached popular restaurant, has rented out most of its 88 rooms for that weekend, but the ever-changing will-it-or-won’t-it led to a handful of cancellations, and its staff is afraid they'll lose more.

“We’ll see what happens,” desk clerk Dora McCann said philosophically. “As of right now, we’ve got a lot of rooms rented and almost all the reservations are for Woodstock. If it’s canceled, we’ll lose a lot of money.”

Cam and Paul Friesen, co-owners of the Watkins Glen-Corning KOA resort, were fully booked within three days of the announcement of the Woodstock Festival. Then, after notifying their regulars to avoid coming that weekend, they started getting cancellations.

“It’s been a real headache,” Cam said.

“In the 27 years we’ve been here, this area has matured nicely as a vacation destination. It’s not a one-feature area,” Paul said, adding that, on weekends when there are major races or other events at the track, many regular visitors stop coming to the area. “So everything except the racetrack slows down. The track tends to have large events, they’re self-contained, they serve food, all the services that would be provided by everyone else take a bit of a hit.”

(Photo by Rebekah Carroll / Watkins Glen Chamber)
(Photo by Rebekah Carroll / Watkins Glen Chamber)

“We’re indifferent,” said Bill Tague, owner of Jerland’s Ristorante and Pizza Company in downtown Watkins Glen. “When there is an event at the track like a Phish concert, we’re able to feed the setup crews and the staff for a week or two before the event, but during the event, we don’t feel any impact because the track does a good job of keeping people at the site. They don’t let our delivery drivers inside. The event would be good for the county from a sales-tax standpoint, but we’re going to be here either way.”

A slightly different point of view came from Nicholas Thayer, owner of another large downtown eatery, Nickel’s Pit Barbecue. Peace, love and barbecue? He was all for it.

“We love the idea, we thought it would be great for it to happen,” he said.

He said he’s frustrated by the way prospective festival attendees venting their distress about the apparent disarray in the Woodstock organization are taking it out by criticizing the region on social media.

“Any big event that draws such national attention is great for our area if it’s done well. It’s not just about a few days when 100,000 people will be here -- we already have that with NASCAR. Whether Woodstock happens or not, we’ll be full. It’s not the business we’re after, we want to share what an awesome area this is. It’s a good opportunity to share our area with a lot more people.”

(Photo by Rebekah Carroll / Watkins Glen Chamber)
(Photo by Rebekah Carroll / Watkins Glen Chamber)

It’s a sentiment heartily endorsed by Rebekah Carroll, president and CEO of the Watkins Glen Area Chamber of Commerce.

“Regardless of whether or not it’s a go, we still have amazing things to do in the area,” she said. “We’ve heard that people have booked their vacations and flights, and many are coming anyway, so we want to share with them other things they can do while they’re here.”

To that end, the chamber has created a web page where visitors can find information on what is happening in the area in August whether there’s a concert or not. Many businesses intend to run special offers, and Carroll points to the 30 or 40 restaurants in the vicinity of Watkins Glen and creative and enthusiastic local retailers (among them artisanal bakery Glen Mountain Market, whose motto is, “All you knead is love!”).

There are three-season outdoor attractions such as Watkins Glen State Park and other nearby waterfalls, boat excursions available on Seneca Lake and the other Finger Lakes, as well as on the still-operating Erie Canal. And the flavors of the region await those venturing beyond the village limits, including more than 70 often award-winning craft breweries and distillers around the lake. Museums in the area range from the Corning Museum of Glass to cultural institutions like the Glenn Curtiss Aviation Museum in Hammondsport, as well as art museums and galleries.

Sure, downtown Watkins Glen is currently undergoing an intense makeover ("Which will make it the jewel we’ve always wanted it to be,” Carroll said.) But despite the omnipresent construction, something urban visitors will be well-accustomed to walking around, businesses are open and looking forward enthusiastically to whoever the season brings.

Featured image by 25th anniversary Woodstock Festival main stage in 1994. (Photo by mark reinstein / Shutterstock)

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