It’s the end of an era. Dean Gitter, the Don Quixote of the Catskills, the singular force of nature behind the decades-long effort to build the Belleayre Resort atop Highmount, has died.
The show will go on, of course: The 83-year-old Gitter stepped back from Crossroads Ventures, the entity seeking to develop the resort, a couple of years ago. Gitter’s partners at Crossroads are still pushing to build on the slopes next to the Belleayre Ski Center, and it looks like it may actually happen after all these years. The resort’s old enemies, the Catskill Heritage Alliance and the handful of wealthy landowning families funding their legal battle against the developers, exhausted their final legal appeal a couple of months ago.
If — let’s say, when — the resort is built, it will be, as Daily Freeman publisher emeritus Ira Fusfeld put it, “a monument to his perseverance.” Still, there’s something incredibly poignant about the fact that Gitter won’t live to see it. It was his windmill, his white whale, his El Dorado — and in his nigh-evangelical quest to bring golf and spa packages to the Big Indian Wilderness, he made a lot of bright-eyed converts to the cause.
Plenty of local businessfolks on the Delaware County side of Highmount have been thirsting after the multiplier impact of those sweet, sweet development dollars since 2000. Over the course of the long years since the project was first proposed, the resort has assumed almost mythical proportions in the collective imagination of the small business community. To hear them talk at public hearings, Gitter might’ve been some sort of Moses, leading the benighted Catskills to a promised land of magical prosperity. Something to lift us once and for all from our striving, our perpetual shabbiness. Streets paved with shiny new skier dollars, and a job in every pot.
The reality, I’m certain, is more nuanced. We could use a proper hotel, sure. The idea that it will solve the economic dilemmas of the local tourist economy is a preposterous fiction — as are some of the opposition’s claims, frankly. A few new buildings on Highmount are not going to wreak untold environmental havoc on the Forever Wild Catskills. They won’t save us from penury, either. But thanks to almost 20 years of vicious infighting over the resort, that’s the narrative we’re trapped in: a war of zealots, with wild hyperbole on both sides.
I admit I didn’t love the man. His belligerence was legendary, but he was never impolite to me personally. He did once call my mother an unprintable four-letter word at a public meeting, back in the take-no-prisoners 90s, and that’s the sort of thing an impressionable teenager doesn’t forget. But my main beef with Gitter was the mark his project left on the community. The early resort battles were a time of neighbor against neighbor, a time of slashed tires and newspaper wars and grudges dug in deep enough to last a lifetime. Civic life in Shandaken has never quite recovered.
Talk to anyone who was active in politics or business in the Central Catskills 20 years ago, and you’ll hear it in their voice: the bitterness left over from the epic battle over the resort in the early aughts never really drained away. The resort wars have just kept raging on, with some of the same familiar soldiers and generals, but in new forms: the fight between the railroad and rail-trail advocates in Ulster County, for instance. Pore over old newspaper accounts of the resort battles and you’ll find some of the same old Hatfields and McCoys, still going toe-to-toe on local development issues. Bring up longtime resort foe Kathy Nolan in mixed company, on this side of the mountain, and prepare to get an earful.
Our current political age is one of intense divisions and hatreds. I find it deeply painful, but in a way, the fury of the national conversation makes more sense to me. If we’re fighting over whether to keep children in cages, or arguing for people’s basic humanity, we’re bound to inflame each other’s passions. The intensity of the anger in Catskills local politics is dismaying. I try to explain it to my city friends, and it baffles them, mostly. Is it worth hating your neighbor over a hotel? Is a train track worth pouring another generation’s worth of poison into local civic discourse?
God, I hope they build the resort. Maybe then we can finally stop fighting about it.