April 24, 1997 in Nation/World

We Are Stardust; We Now Take Visa Gold Businessman Buys Woodstock Site, Plans To Make A Theme Park

Joseph Berger New York Times
 

A wealthy businessman has bought the site of the fabled 1969 Woodstock festival and plans to turn it into a theme park - a major tourist attraction and shrine to the 1960s counterculture on the scale of Colonial Williamsburg, Va., though something short of Disneyland.

The businessman, Alan Gerry, who built a local television antenna business into what he said was the eighth-largest cable television operation in America, undertook the project at the suggestion of his younger daughter, Robyn, who makes a pilgrimage to the onetime cow pasture in Bethel every summer. Her older sister, Annelise, like thousands of other teenagers, stole away to the 1969 concert against the express wishes of her father and spent four days there camping out in mud and rain.

“They didn’t create the milking machine or invent the automobile on that site, but it was a defining moment in the music world,” the 68-year-old Gerry said of the Woodstock site. “Some people say they were a bunch of pot smokers and wore bandanas and bell-bottoms, but it’s part of American culture, whether we like it or not.”

The entry of Gerry, listed by Fortune magazine as one of the 250 richest people in America, heartened local officials eager for development to revive Sullivan County, whose fortunes have prospered and ebbed with the Catskills resort hotels. The county is also pinning its hopes on approval of an Indian-run casino at Monticello Raceway.

Gerry, who sold his cable company to Time Warner last year for $2.7 billion, has never developed real estate for housing, offices or stores.

But working furtively through an intermediary real estate company, he bought 37 acres of the original site for roughly $1 million and bought or in some cases leased the surrounding 1,000 acres for a sum he would not reveal.

The land is primarily zoned for agricultural and residential uses, but local officials indicated that zoning matters would not be an obstacle. They said they were eager to work with Gerry in creating a project that would stimulate the sagging economy.

A major concern is what kind of development would be acceptable to Woodstock purists, who revere the site as hallowed ground, particularly some of the 400,000 people who camped in muck so they could hear virtually every legendary rock band of the 1960s.

Gerry (pronounced with a hard G like Gary) insisted Wednesday that he wanted no Ferris wheels or any other disruptive “honky-tonk.” He said he would decide whether the development would include museums, train rides, concert amphitheaters, multiple movie screens, and re-enactments of the Woodstock event after consulting with architects and entertainment experts.

“I want the site to exist in perpetuity so generations will be able to come there and stand and experience what earlier generations experienced without having to go into a honky-tonk situation,” Gerry said in an interview in his elegant ballroomsized office in a modern office building on a rustic hillside. “I want something that will appeal to everybody, not just the yuppies who were there when they were kids.” He added that he had not yet decided whether to bring entertainment professionals like Disney or Time Warner into the venture.

“It’s our hope to put enough events in this footprint of land that everyone in America will want to come see it at least once,” he said.

In January, county officials said they were planning to buy the 37-acre field from the Brooklyn woman, June Gelish, who they believed owned it and to turn it into a shrine that would include a museum and concert stage. Their prime motive was to put an end to the random and chaotic visits to the field by tens of thousands of people who viewed Woodstock as a historic landmark, like Gettysburg.

But unknown to the county, Gerry had already bought the site, as well as 40 nearby properties, through a real estate company. Ms. Gelish, who had owned the centerpiece of what was once Max Yasgur’s 1,000-acre farm, died last week.

Informed of the purchase Wednesday, Jonathan Drapkin, the county manager, said the county had always hoped that a private developer would acquire the site and save county officials the political strains of condemning property or winning passage of a bond issue.

“I’m extremely excited by this news,” he said. “Mr. Gerry, who has a long history in Sullivan County and knowledge of its interest, is a wonderful proprietor for development of the site.”

Almost as interesting as the purchase is the story of the purchaser.

Gerry was born in Ferndale, near here, and moved for a time to the Bronx, where he attended De Witt Clinton High School. He served as a marine in the late 1940s, then looked for something to do and, under the GI Bill, studied television repair.

He came back to Sullivan County in the early 1950s and began clambering atop 160-foot antenna towers and stringing wires down to rural homes so people could get decent reception on their new television sets.

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