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Coolest Charity In the World: Watkins Glen Got Lucky

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[Editor’s Note: Woodstock inspired millions to find ways to help and serve their local communities — as well as the larger global scene.  Larry Lieberman is head of CoolestCharity.org, a group that aggregates and shares information about charities inspired by the Woodstock ethos and those who participated.  This is another in a series from Larry, spotlighting some of these exceptional groups.]

 

It happened again. One of the smallest and poorest counties in New York was counting on an economic shot in the arm from a huge summer concert — and it disappears.

This time it was Woodstock 50.

“Watkins Glen International terminated the site license for Woodstock 50 pursuant to provisions of the contract. As such, WGI will not be hosting the Woodstock 50 Festival.” With these few words, the revenue from event jobs, hotel rooms, restaurant meals, camping supplies and everything else disappeared from the small town of Watkins Glen, NY.

Rural communities all over the country are struggling to maintain themselves during this time when higher-paying technology jobs remain tethered to our cities and farm prices and agricultural careers aren’t keeping up with expenses.

Beautiful and serene, Watkins Glen is one of the lucky places. In addition to its healthcare, manufacturing, and agricultural jobs (26% of its workforce), it sustains itself with tourism and the proceeds from Watkins Glen International, one of the largest — albeit seasonal — automotive racetracks in America. The town has been hosting auto racing since 1956 and was the home of the Formula One United States Grand Prix from 1961 to 1980.

Even so, unemployment in Watkins Glen hovers around 5.3%, 35% higher than the national average.

Last year’s adversity in Watkins Glen was the staggering impact of flooding. Heavy rainfall contaminated the public water supply, did tens of millions of dollars in damage to New York’s Finger Lake Region, and canceled the Curveball Festival organized by Phish. The federal disaster area covered portions of seven counties. As the area continues its rebuilding, the loss of the Woodstock 50 concert was another disappointment.

Fifty years ago the original Woodstock festival was also thrown off of its site in Upstate New York.

At 7:45 pm on Thursday evening, June 12, 1969, the Town Board of Wallkill, NY, led by Supervisor Jack Schlosser met in Town Hall to discuss the concert’s fate. According to notes kept by Woodstock producers John Roberts and Joel Rosenman, as of June 12, they had already sold nearly 10,000 tickets to Woodstock ($169,339 worth) and spent $251,102 planning the festival (including renting 600 acres of land from Howard Mills in Wallkill, NY).

As John and Joel explain it in Two Young Men with Unlimited Capital, their firsthand account of the rise, fall, and eventual resurrection of Woodstock, the Town Board meeting was raucous from the beginning. “We have some problems with this, uh, Woodstock matter before us, began Town Supervisor Schlosser. “Do you want to tell us why this Aquarian Art and Music Festival isn’t going to be a real disaster for our town?” A few days later John and Joel received the call, Woodstock will not be happening in Wallkill, NY. Amazing how history repeats itself.

So where does all this leave our small towns and rural counties? These are the regions of our country so in need of philanthropic support to maintain basic health, safety, human services, and arts groups. Most of these areas are out of sight to many of our nation’s leading (and urban-based) philanthropists. That’s why they need our support.

Next time you’re enjoying a country getaway, think about making a donation to a local community cause. Attend a small-town fundraiser, make a donation, buy a raffle ticket at the strawberry festival, dog show or VFW hall. It’s as simple as opening Google to search for the same types of organizations that you support at home: “humane society,” Red Cross,” “food pantry,” “volunteer fire department.” These organizations are there, in every small town and region.

Last year, following the devastation and cancellation of their festival in Watkins Glen, Phish stepped up and made large donations to several support organizations and first-responders in the Watkins Glen area. In addition to being one of the coolest bands in the world, Phish are consistently generous.

While each band member has their own reasons to be grateful, drummer Jon Fishman (for whom the band is named) is especially philanthropic. As kids, Fishman and I went to summer camp together at Adirondack Woodcraft Camps in Old Forge, NY. I bring it up because “Woodcraft” is where benevolence, magnanimity, and caring are all taught by example in the most beautiful and adventurous natural setting. It’s the place where the concept of “greater good” all came together for me. To this day, I still see the direct connection of how the joys and challenges of wilderness camp experiences and camaraderie tie directly to my work with nonprofits and community service. I also remember how Fishman’s mom, Mimi, so warmly and willingly shared her grace and generosity with the campers and staff at Woodcraft. She’s a woman who made a big impression on us.

With these memories in mind, this week’s Coolest Charities in the World are four outstanding Watkins Glen community groups:  Arbor Housing and Development Foundation, American Red Cross of the Finger Lakes, Hector NY Food Pantry, and the Humane Society of Schuyler County.

Donations to each of these organizations are tax-deductible and can be made at the links above. For more information about The WaterWheel Foundation which oversees Phish’s various charitable activities, please visit their website or contact the author at CoolestCharity.org

-The CS Team

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