Windham Mountain, a ski resort just over two hours north of New York City, was in need of revamping. The lift lines were too long. The food and drink quality had declined.
So when word got out that a new ownership group was taking over, the change was initially welcomed.
But then the new owners, led by the founder of a national restaurant chain and a hotel group scion, unveiled a slick website that laid out their plans for an ambitious rebrand in October. Windham Mountain would now be known as the Windham Mountain Club. The resort promised skiers “a rare time in rarified air.” The club’s restaurants would receive a “gastronomique glow up.”
Memberships to access the new amenities would come at a steep price: $175,000 for those who joined right away, and $200,000 for those who waited until March. If current members, some of whom paid as little as $25,000 for their spots, did not opt in, their memberships would be terminated on May 1.
“It’s no secret that they’ve managed to alienate and, frankly, piss off a lot of people,” said Nick Bove, who owns Windham Mountain Outfitters, a local equipment store.
The changes at Windham Mountain, seemingly designed to attract wealthier clientele from New York City, typify the accelerating gentrification of the Catskills in recent years, particularly after the coronavirus pandemic led many city dwellers to move upstate.
Chip Seamans, who has been president of the mountain’s ski resort for more than a decade, said in an interview that the new owners’ initial investment had exceeded $70 million. The ownership group is led by Sandy Beall, the founder of the restaurant chain Ruby Tuesday, and Webb Wilson, an heir to the Holiday Inn fortune.
“The Catskills are hot,” said Mr. Seamans, 65. “The Catskills are happening right now. Sandy Beall and his partners saw that and wanted to be part of it.”
In September, Windham residents circulated a Change.org petition calling on town leaders to block the mountain’s transformation into a semiprivate club. Its authors hoped to prevent the town from becoming “an enclave for just a few wealthy downstate families.”
“This is a bad plan for everyone,” the petition reads.
As the ski season approached, that plan began to take shape. A popular bike park, shuttered in October, will not reopen. The mountain’s golf course will be renovated and become members-only. And a $10 million dining overhaul includes an Italian restaurant that charges $30 for spaghetti and meatballs.
Members will also face annual dues starting at $9,000 and increasing each year “as more amenities come online,” according to a frequently asked questions document distributed to existing members last month and obtained by The New York Times.
The old memberships granted access to a members-only lodge, among other perks, and had been offered for about 15 years. In recent years, the price rose to $125,000 with annual fees of $3,900, but slope access was not contingent on membership status, so there was no need to pay that premium. Many loyal Windham skiers simply relied on season passes, which cost around $1,400, and paid roughly $1,000 for locker rentals.
Season passes and lift tickets will remain available for purchase under the new plan, but the goal, according to the membership document, is to limit public access in order to ensure member priority.
There are around 1,800 ski homes in the Windham Mountain area. The plan’s detractors fear that both residents and visitors could eventually be left without access to the mountain.
“People in the town definitely feel betrayed about it,” said Gregory Santollo, 38, who has a house on the backside of the mountain. Mr. Santollo has snowboarded at Windham since he was 10 years old, but he said that if plans proceeded as advertised, he would abandon the mountain and head to Vermont.
Mr. Seamans dismissed concerns that the new owners hoped to fully privatize the resort.
“I assure people that they will be able to have access to the mountain,” he said.
For this ski season, which opened on Nov. 24, much remains unchanged except for a new rule: During peak season between January and March, skiers and snowboarders who wish to use the mountain on Saturdays must buy a two-day pass, which could cost up to $450. A single-day weekend lift ticket would have cost around $175 last year.
That presents a problem for Windham, a town that relies on so-called “weekenders” to fuel its economy.
The mountain is a short drive from New York City, New Jersey and Connecticut, giving it an advantage over ski resorts in Vermont or New Hampshire. It was also long seen as more affordable.
Mr. Bove, 58, said that almost all of the 1,700 year-round residents of Windham derive their income from activity related to the mountain. People visiting to ski or snowboard — and in the summer, hike and bike — frequent the shops and restaurants on Main Street.
“There’s no other way to look at it — Windham Mountain is the most major economic driver for this town by far,” Mr. Bove said.
Ryan Gutierrez, 44, who lives at the base of the mountain and runs a local painting business, said he doesn’t think people can complain until the plan fully unfolds. Plus, Mr. Gutierrez noted, some of the perks are already available — there wasn’t a sushi restaurant in town before, he said, and now there’s one at the lodge.
“The town is not losing out, that’s my opinion,” he said, adding that the new direction could help his business. “Nothing’s really changed, and all I hear is good things.”
But the backlash on social media to the rebrand was swift. After the club’s carefully edited Instagram posts became flooded with negative feedback, comments were turned off.
On other social platforms, the mountain’s many fans have bemoaned the looming changes to its identity as an accessible mountain. They have taken particular exception to the “rarified air” language, which has since been removed from the website.
Mr. Seamans said that the resort had not tried to “put something out that infuriates people or insults them” and that the website had been changed to reflect that.
Mr. Santollo, who met his wife in line for the ski lift at Windham Mountain and proposed to her there in 2008, said that the rebrand failed to take into account the personal connection many people felt with the mountain.
“We were offended,” Mr. Santollo said. “We all make mistakes with social media, but it was a big fail. We found it to be very disrespectful.”
Josh Fromer, a snowboarding coach and substitute teacher at a high school in Windham, grew up in nearby Hunter and said his family first moved to the area in the 1860s. He also works at an auto shop and produces local comedy nights, embodying what he described as “the hustle in a mountain town.”
Windham has slowly been changing over the years, he said, increasingly catering to city people with high salaries. But this new attempt at a luxury ski experience strikes him as a stretch.
“I’m very much the definition of a local, and I don’t quite see the appetite for this kind of thing,” said Mr. Fromer, 39. “These are not the type of people who would spend that kind of money. And if they were willing to spend that type of money to go skiing, they’d be in Verbier or Chamonix or Aspen or someplace like that.”
And while Windham has been gentrifying for years, Mr. Fromer said the town had not yet been overrun by high-end retailers and luxury amenities. He fears that the transformation of the mountain will accelerate a shift in that direction and that locals will get priced out.
“There’s not going to be five generations of families that are going to be able to justify staying up here like mine has,” he said. “As somebody who has a truly vested interest in the welfare of this community, it kind of breaks my heart and scares me, to be honest with you.”
The Catskills have been experiencing a “renaissance” for several decades now, according to Marisa Scheinfeld, a visual historian. She published “The Borscht Belt,” which illustrated the region’s transition from its heyday as a vacation destination for Jewish families in the mid-20th century to now.
But the pandemic sped up the transformation, as people began traveling north and buying real estate. Between June 2019 and May 2022, the number of houses available for sale in Greene County, which includes Windham, fell to 213 from 595, contributing to an affordable housing crisis.
“It is an American epidemic, where we hear about the next hot spot, so we go there, so the prices get jacked up,” Ms. Scheinfeld said. “It presents these dilemmas for locals who cannot afford it.”
The optimists, which include Mr. Bove, hope that the club can find a happy medium — and a way to succeed.
“Without a doubt, we would be a whole different town without Windham Mountain,” he said.