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A Giant Step Forward

John Conway
Posted 12/23/22

It was December 19 of 1967, and 150 spectators and “innumerable luminaries from all levels of government, the professions, and industry” were gathered on the former site of Camp Israel in …

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A Giant Step Forward


It was December 19 of 1967, and 150 spectators and “innumerable luminaries from all levels of government, the professions, and industry” were gathered on the former site of Camp Israel in Swan Lake for what was termed “a giant step forward” for Sullivan County.

It was the groundbreaking for Sullivan County International Airport. “Work has already started, with 10 bulldozers clearing the tract in an effort to get as much site work done as possible before the bad weather closes in,” the Liberty Register reported in a front page story in its Thursday, December 21, 1967 edition. “The contract calls for a December, 1968 completion, but it is expected, if all goes well, that the airport will be operational by the fall of next year.”

But nothing went well in the construction of the long-awaited airport, and what began as an estimated $2.4 million project ended up costing $6.5 million. And the major cost overruns were just the tip of the iceberg.

The airport was not operational in the fall of 1968 as the Register had predicted, and in fact, was not even totally finished when it finally opened in July of 1969, but that did little to dampen the enthusiasm of local officials who had waited decades for this major breakthrough in transportation.

”What the completion of the $6.5 million project, whose finishing and not-so-finishing touches are still to be applied, has created here is a general feeling of optimism that a surge of economic development will occur in the next few years,” New York Times reporter Leonard Sloane wrote in a July 28, 1969 article. “To this well-known 1,500 square mile resort area north of New York City, such development will be welcome.

“Not only will it bring additional business visitors and vacationers to the Catskill region, local enthusiasts believe, but it will also serve as a spur to existing businesses and a magnet for the light industry and research plants that are being sought.”

Steve Stetka, the chairman of the Sullivan County Board of Supervisors, told the Times that the impact of the new airport had been felt long before its completion.

“Everybody who owns a piece of real estate is hanging on to it and anywhere in the county prices have grown six times in value,” Stetka, said.

Of course, much of the impetus for the construction of the airport had come from the local resorts, a $60 million annual industry that was struggling, and for whom it was envisioned as a much needed savior.

“Speak to members of the Catskills Resort Association-- who handled 4,500 groups among their 2 million visitors in 1968 and expect substantially more in the years ahead—and you find an overall anticipation that their market, both for convention and individual sales, is about to expand dramatically,” the Times reported shortly after the airport officially opened. “‘The Catskills have always drawn upon New York as its prime source of revenue,’ says Howard L. Bern, director of sales at Grossinger’s. ‘Now, as transportation to get here becomes easier, the perimeter of business becomes larger.’

“Gordon Winarick, executive director of the Concord, points out that, ‘the airport, a status symbol, has jelled us into the concept of thinking as an area. It’s not going to happen automatically, but it will become a very vital link for us.’”

And the hotels were also viewed as a vital link in the success of the airport. Grossinger’s and Kutsher’s collaborated on a plan to encourage vacationers to fly in on charter flights from cities such as Pittsburgh, Detroit, Baltimore and Washington. The Concord organized a plan with 14 other hotels, some of them not in Sullivan County, to offer an all-inclusive Sunday to Sunday tour package to people in Chicago and the Midwest for $239. The plan was for tourists to spend the first four nights at a Sullivan County resort, one night in a motel in Catskill, in Greene County, and Friday and Saturday nights at the Waldorf-Astoria Hotel in New York City, travelling between the points on a sightseeing bus.

“There is no doubt that all the major hotels in our area eventually will be involved in encouraging charter flights to the new airport,” Grossinger’s General Manager Morton Sunshine told the Times.

In its story on the groundbreaking, the Register was quick to point out that the airport would not have become a reality without the efforts of the paper’s publisher, former Grossinger’s publicity guru Milton Blackstone, who had obtained certification for Mohawk airlines to serve the county back in the 1950s.

“The certificate was kept alive for 15 years by Milton Blackstone, Register publisher, and by the Liberty Airport Authority, which he formed ten years ago,” the article said. “Without it, Sullivan would have no air service, and the airport never would have been built.”

But the airport’s problems didn’t end with its opening, and Mohawk’s tenure as the certified carrier was short-lived. The facility went through five operators in its first four years of operation, and by 1972, it was under investigation by the U.S. Attorney’s office for alleged fraud during its construction.

John Conway is the Sullivan County Historian. Email him at jconway52@hotmail.com.  


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