Alan Gerry got to play Woodstock last week. The former Cablevision Industries chairman is pumping some of his money back into the Catskills, where he lives and where Liberty, N.Y.-based CVI grew. He helped to unveil plans for a 4,000-seat arts center at the site of the 1969 Woodstock concert in Bethel, N.Y.
The arts center, with lawn seating for an additional 15,000 concertgoers, will cost about $40 million to build. Of that, $15 million comes in the form of a state grant and the rest from the privately held Gerry Foundation and private donations.
Gov. George Pataki took part in a ceremony at the former Woodstock site last Tuesday, flanked by Gerry, the local state assemblyman and senator and, providing real star power, original Woodstock performer Levon Helm of The Band.
"Alan Gerry's work to preserve the quality of life while promoting the general welfare of Sullivan County has earned him the trust of his neighbors," Pataki said in a prepared statement. "His plans for a world-class performing-arts venue on this site maintain its cultural integrity, as well as encouraging economic development, tourism and job creation for the people of the entire Catskill region."
Gerry-who bought the 37-acre site of Max Yasgur's farm and surrounding land in 1996, staged concerts there, each dubbed "A Day in the Garden," in 1998 and 1999, with mixed results. The concerts were well-attended, but Gerry lost money on the events.
"You don't make money in these things," he said.
Gerry, who did not attend the first Woodstock, said he became interested in the site because of its international prominence.
"Since 1969 or 1970, people have been coming up to visit just to wander around," Gerry said. "It caused the county a lot of problems, but we came up with the idea to take something that is known worldwide and do something with it."
That something turned out to be a facility that Gerry hopes will rival such venues as Tanglewood in the Berkshire Mountains of Massachusetts and the Saratoga Performing Arts Center in Saratoga Springs, N.Y.
Construction is expected to begin next year, with completion in 2003.
Gerry wants the site to accommodate "American" entertainment, including dance, theater and music concerts. He said he is talking with officials at the New York Philharmonic about making the arts center the orchestra's summer home.
Sullivan County has hit hard times in recent years, holding one of the highest unemployment rates in the state in 1999.
While that picture has improved, the county has been the target of numerous bailout schemes, notably a proposed plan to convert one or more Catskills resorts into gambling venues.
Gerry's plan to build the arts center looks like the first concrete economic development project to hit the county in several years, local officials said.
He said local reaction to the arts center been extremely favorable due to the prospect of new jobs and tourism. "I could probably run for mayor up here," he added.
Steve Israel, a reporter and columnist who covers Sullivan County for The Times Herald-Record in Middletown, N.Y., agreed that local reaction was positive.
"This is a really big deal," Israel said. "The county has seen so many proposals for projects over the years, from Woodstock to casinos. This is a little different."
Gerry did not want to estimate how many new jobs the arts center will create, but he said 350 to 450 workers were needed for last year's Day in the Garden.
The Gerry Foundation owns about 1,500 acres around the former Woodstock site. While no plans are final, Gerry said land has been earmarked for lodging, restaurants and a golf course.
"These things don't happen overnight," he added. "Even [The Walt] Disney [Co.] adds something every year. We own 1,500 or 1,600 acres-there's room up there for just a ton of things. Other things will come along."
Gerry sold his cable company to Time Warner Inc. in 1996 for about $2.7 billion. He hung on to a lot of the stock he got then, and Time Warner has had a good run in the past couple of years.
According to securities filings, he has voting power-personally and through limited partnerships in which he is the general partner-over 14.8 million Time Warner shares, worth more than $1.2 billion.
According to Time Warner's March 20 proxy statement, Gerry personally controls 3.025 million shares, worth $258.7 million at last Thursday's $85.52 closing price. The Gerry Foundation has 2.2 million shares worth $188.1 million.
Since the sale, Gerry has been active on the philanthropy front, starting with his $10 million donation for the creation of the Cable Center at the University of Denver in 1997.
Gerry, who owns a 160-acre farm not far from the Woodstock site, said the arts center will be the biggest thing on his plate for the time being. "Getting my corn crop in and getting the apples off the trees in time-those are my goals here for this year," he added.