Ellenville’s Next Chapter

  |  October 17, 2023

Situated at the base of the Shawangunk Ridge, Ellenville has seen its share of ups and downs. Once a thriving hub of commerce and industry, this small village basked in the limelight during the days of the Borscht Belt era, offering respite and revelry to those seeking a getaway just 90 miles from New York City. As resorts, hotels, and bungalow colonies dotted the Catskills landscape, manufacturing facilities provided a year-round economic backbone for the village. But by the start of the 21st century, Ellenville was grappling with a series of major setbacks. The decline of the resort industry and the closure of iconic establishments like the Nevele Grande Hotel coupled with the fade-out of once-thriving manufacturing industries, including a Hydro Aluminum plant, a Channel Master facility, and the Imperial Schrade knife factory, was a double hit.

In 2012, Ellenville found itself divided when Nevele Investors LLC proposed a $500 million redevelopment project to turn the old hotel into a destination casino. Some residents saw the proposal as an economic light at the end of the tunnel, while others feared it might ruin the small-town intimacy they cherished. Ultimately, the state passed over Ellenville’s casino bid (instead giving it to Resorts World in Monticello), and the project never came to fruition.

Photo by Ryan Keegan

But Ellenville found its economic salvation elsewhere and, a decade later, is once again on the upswing. Since the pandemic, the village has received a steady influx of newcomers who have helped breathe new life into the community. A wave of fresh businesses, along with the revitalization of existing ones, has kindled a palpable sense of hope, and you can feel the buzz of excitement in the air.

What sets Ellenville’s revival apart is the harmonious collaboration between long-time residents and the new faces on the scene. “We have a mentality of being very welcoming when someone comes in and wants to open a business,” says Mayor Jeff Kaplan. “We’ve tried to limit the bureaucracy that you have to go through to get approval, and we’ll work with any business that wants to open up within the village. We’ve found it to be very beneficial.”

Four-foot, bronze “Boy with the Boot” statue in Liberty Square at the center of Ellenville. Photo by Ryan Keegan

Helping to unify the new and old voices is the Coalition for Forward Facing Ellenville. The Coalition, also known as COFFE, is working to uplift and refresh Ellenville’s image while including existing residents and business owners in the vision. Some of COFFE’s accomplishments include installing street lights in dark areas, distributing the Destination Ellenville Tourism Guide and managing a tourism-focused social media account, and organizing community cleanups, including an Earth Day Community Clean Up with over 100 volunteers.

COFFE president Victoria Messner admits that the coalition was met with trepidation at first. “For the first year that COFFE was around, there was some hesitation from long-timers who weren’t directly involved or didn’t know the Board of Directors personally,” says Messner. However, skepticism diminished as the group put their plans into action. “The only way to change the perception was to get as many people involved as possible and to just keep working, knowing that over time, people would see that we’re trying to do good,” says Messner.

Artist Adi Oren, an Ellenville resident, painted this mural on the Sook House. Photo by Ryan Keegan

Messner is not only the force behind COFFE but also the co-founder of Reservoir Studio, a full-service photography, branding, and marketing firm she founded with her wife Natalia Moena. Reservoir Studio has served as a creative powerhouse that’s been instrumental in branding new businesses, including home goods store Inland Objects and the Sideways wine bar. The studio has also done rebranding for existing businesses, such as tapas and wine bar Marbella.

Ellenville has seen a flurry of small businesses popping up over the last few years. Besides Inland and Sideways, other newcomers to the walkable downtown include M & C Jamaican Cuisine, Everything Nice record and book shop, clothing designer Alpana Bawa, the 81 North boutique inn, and the Morning Sunshine cafe and market.

Courtesy of Morning Sunshine

Many of the new businesses also owe part of their success to Slutsky Lumber, which has provided the building materials for much of Ellenville’s recent renovations. Jonathan and Rebecca Falcon purchased the lumberyard and building supply store from World War II veteran George Slutsky in June 2021 (and also rebranded with Reservoir Studio).

Since taking over Slutsky Lumber, the Falcons—like most newcomers—are grateful to have been showered with support from the community. “We have the best group of friends we’ve ever had,” says Jonathan Falcon. “After a week of being here, we met so many interesting people who have become a part of our lives. Everyone in the community really supports each other and wants other businesses to succeed. Other places aren’t as accepting to outsiders coming in.”

Scarecrows set up around Ellenville by COFFE in preparation for the Harvest Festival. Photo by Ryan Keegan

Supporting their sense of the community is Kelly Collins. Collins, who has managed Slutsky Lumber for 40 years, agreed to stick around for another three to help with the ownership transition. As they anticipate further growth, the Falcons’ aim is to update the business while preserving its tradition of high-quality lumber and personalized service. “We’ve slowly been modernizing the business,” says Falcon. “When we got here, there was no website or computer to ring up customers. But we’re staying true to keeping the high-quality lumber, and we also offer someone to actually talk to, who can answer questions and help you design.”

Inland Objects, which recruited the services of both Slutsky Lumber and Reservoir Studio, is a prime example of an exciting new business. Co-owner Eric Springer owns several properties in Ellenville, both solo and with some silent business partners. Besides Inland, Springer is also the landlord for Sideways, clothing designer Alpana Bawa, and the long-established Publik House pub.

Moo Duk Kwan Academy Showcases Blue Devil pride. Photo by Ryan Keegan

Springer hopes that housing a diverse spread of new and old businesses can enrich the village. “One of the things that we’re really big on is harkening back to 1960s counterculture,” says Springer. “Like West Village or Greenwich Village having all these different artists from different mediums gathering in the same space sharing ideas. We’re contemplating a modern version of that. We want people saying that Ellenville is a place that is always surprising, or always new, or always fresh.”

Another key player in the village’s resurgence is Barbara Hoff, affectionately nicknamed the “fairy godmother of Ellenville.” Born and raised in Ellenville, Hoff has run Top Shelf Jewelry, which manufactures custom jewelry on a wholesale level, for 42 years. Hoff was recently named Citizen of the Year by Ellenville’s Noonday Club for her advocacy for the village. She’s been praised for facilitating local relationships and projects such as Ellenville StrEATs, which allows the restaurants on Ellenville’s Canal Street to set up tables out on the street to serve food accompanied by live music. “She is such a champion for connecting people,” says Springer. Her involvement makes everything that much more exciting.”

Part of the Borscht Belt Museum’s “Vacationland!” pop-up exhibition. Photo by Ryan Keegan

Hoff’s dedication to Ellenville also involves preserving the town’s history. Top Shelf is located within the former site of an 1892 train station. Hoff restored the station, including replacing a huge slate roof with an entirely new one. While she retrofitted the space to fit the needs of her business, she’s proud to have kept its identity intact. “If you look at an old postcard of the station, and you look at my building, they look just the same,” says Hoff.

She’s also pleased that Ellenville’s other historic buildings continue to stand as new businesses take root in the area. “I’m passionate about keeping all the old buildings we have here,” says Hoff. “During urban renewal, we lost a lot of them. But now, people are coming in and rescuing them, and that’s not the easier route. It’s heartwarming to see that people are not degrading the town.”

Letters from Museum attendees about their experiences with the Borscht Belt. Photo by Ryan Keegan.

Historic preservation is a shared sentiment among Ellenville’s residents. The village’s public library contains a museum showcasing local history from as far back as the pre-colonial era. There’s also the recently opened Borscht Belt Museum. Housed in the village’s c.1928 Home National Bank, the museum celebrates the golden age of the Catskills resort era. While the permanent museum is projected to open in 2025, the space debuted with a pop-up show in July to preview what the full museum will offer. The pop-up showcases artifacts from the Borscht Belt era and includes a recording booth as part of its oral history project, where participants can share their personal stories of the Borscht Belt.

Beyond the well-known Jewish resort history, the museum sheds light on the diverse backgrounds that have contributed to the region’s colorful past. “People think of the Borscht Belt as just a Jewish resort area,” says museum board member Elliott Auerbach. “But when you come into the museum, you’ll recognize that there were a number of African American, Polish, Ukrainian, and Italian resorts.”

One Finished Facade of the Shadowland mural by Amy Park. Photo by Amy Park.

Born and raised in Ellenville, Auerbach asserts that the village’s multicultural history is one of its defining features, rather than just a buzzword. “The one thing I’ve always embraced is the diversity in the community,” says Auerbach. “I know that’s a word that we’re probably overusing a lot of times, but this truly was, and is, the center of a diverse community.” He also understands firsthand the role of the immigrant experience in the village’s identity. “My mother is an immigrant,” says Auerbach. “First generation on her side, she came to this country, worked really hard, and taught herself English. She used to borrow my spelling book when I was a kid to learn how to spell.”

Auerbach, along with several others in the village, highlights Ganero Garcia as an embodiment of successful immigration. Born in Mexico City, Garcia has been the proprietor of Gaby’s Cafe in Ellenville since 2008. When the historic Cohen’s Bakery, a local staple since the early 1920s, faced difficulties after changing ownership multiple times, Garcia swept in to purchase and revive the beloved bakery. “From immigrant to immigrant,” says Auerbach. “That’s truly an Ellenville story.”

Space connecting Ellenville’s Library and Museum. Photo by Ryan Keegan.

Ellenville will also be modernizing several key institutions that have contributed to the village’s vitality. One such cornerstone is the historic theater Shadowland Stages, which has been instrumental in sustaining Ellenville by attracting thousands of visitors each year. The theater not only offers regular performances, but also hosts an academy providing a diverse array of classes in acting, dance, and music for individuals of all ages.

Presently, Shadowland’s three-building campus is undergoing a transformation with the addition of an expansive mural. The mural, designed by artist Amy Park, serves to harmonize the facades of the campus’s buildings, which have vastly different architectural styles. Park and her partner, sculptor Paul Villinski, transformed a 1970s department store downtown into Market Street Studio, a studio/exhibition space. Park has recently used the studio to plan and showcase the design of the mural. “I’m thrilled to help create an exciting and memorable identity for the Shadowland campus and, by extension, signify that the Village of Ellenville is home to a vibrant and growing community with the theater at its core,” says Park.

Outside the center of town, there are other developments poised to bring economic growth and job opportunities to the region. Cresco Labs has already constructed a nearby marijuana facility for processing, and is looking to build another one for growing and cultivation which offers the potential to bring anywhere from 300 to 1,200 local jobs. And the Nevele hotel has just been sold as part of plans by Somerset Partners to create an entirely new facility with lodging and a housing development.

Amidst all of this renewal, Mayor Kaplan is confident that Ellenville is up to the challenge of balancing economic growth with the preservation of its identity. “Your name means something here,” says Kaplan. “I grew up as my father’s son. I was Herb Kaplan’s son, and my kids grew up as Jeff Kaplan’s son and daughter. It’s a great way to live in a small community. If you want a cultural life that can’t be compared to anywhere else in the world, and yet live in a rural area, Ellenville is a perfect location for you.”

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