Alan Gerry's Woodstock Notion
The last thing Alan Gerry needs is a risky new business venture. Gerry amassed one of America's largest fortunes by pioneering cable TV back in the '50s. Working entirely from his hometown of tiny Liberty, N.Y., he built Cablevision Industries Corp. into a colossus and sold it to Time Warner Inc. for $2.7 billion in 1996. But now, at age 70, this buttoned-down billionaire has embarked on an improbable second career as the owner of hallowed hippie ground: the grassy hill where the Woodstock rock festival was held in 1969. Gerry believes he can transform the 2,000 acres of woods and farmland into a music-themed tourist attraction.
Gerry owns the property through a charitable foundation and says he is not looking to profit personally from his ambitious scheme. Nor is he motivated by nostalgia for Woodstock. Indeed, he doesn't much care for rock 'n' roll. Gerry's avowed ambition is to revive the moribund economy of his native Sullivan County, once the vibrant hub of the Borscht Belt, the circuit of big, family resorts that catered to a Jewish clientele from New York City. "Woodstock is the only thing we have going for us in this part of the state in terms of national recognition," Gerry says. "The idea is to extract what was good about Woodstock, repackage it, and present it to Middle America."
ON HIS OWN. Gerry, who has no experience in the music business, is a most unlikely impresario. In the first blush of his enthusiasm for the Woodstock site, which is located just down the road from Liberty in Bethel, N.Y., he talked of teaming up with a major entertainment company. His idea was to create a Woodstock "theme park on the scale of Colonial Williamsburg," complete with concert halls, hotels, a museum, maybe even a golf course.
But two years after buying the property, the partner he's seeking has yet to materialize. Gerry says that he will proceed concert-by-concert and, at least for now, on his own--just as he built Cablevision. He held his first concert weekend last summer and says there will be a half dozen more this season, not all of which will be devoted to rock. Blues and jazz events are both distinct possibilities. Next year, he will construct the first permanent structure on the site: an amphitheater with 5,000 covered seats.
The notion of one man, even a very rich one, aspiring to singlehandedly reverse the fortunes of an entire county would seem ludicrous in most places. But Gerry, with a net worth estimated at $1.5 billion and close ties to powerful players on Wall Street and in the entertainment industry, is not just a big fish in a small pond: He is a whale in a bathtub. "He looms large in potential economic impact on the entire mid-Hudson Valley region," says Ann Davis, director of the Marist College Bureau of Economic Research.
Establishing Bethel as a major music center will require more than deep pockets, however; it calls for marketing savvy very different from anything Gerry demonstrated in building Cablevision. His plans are predicated on exploiting what he calls the "magical drawing power" of the site, which still attracts thousands of people every year. Yet the essence of the Woodstock mystique is anti-commercial. It became, after all, a free concert for anyone who could get to Max Yasgur's pasture.
What is more, Gerry is determined to distance his venture from the historical reality of what took place at Woodstock--the sex, the drugs, and especially the gate-crashing. After protracted negotiations with the original Woodstock promoters, who still control rights to the Woodstock name, Gerry decided not to license it--and not just because it would have cost him dearly. "We can't recreate Woodstock, nor do we want to," he says. "We want to turn its notoriety into a place where we can shape controlled, scaled-down musical events of all sorts."
Last August, Gerry brought high decibels back to Bethel for the first time in 29 years, staging a weekend concert called "A Day In the Garden" but dubbed "Gerrystock" by the locals. Some 73,000 people paid $23 a ticket on average to see Woodstock-era performers such as Joni Mitchell, Pete Townshend, and Ten Years After, and such newer bands as the Goo Goo Dolls, Third Eye Blind, and Marcy Playground. Tellingly, the new bands proved to be the bigger draw.
Was his debut concert a success? That depends on how you measure it. Gerry's wallet is now lighter by $10 million, including the $6 million he paid for the site and the $4 million he lost producing the concert. He was stuck with 17,000 unsold tickets but would have lost money even with a sellout. For starters, he paid through the nose to book certain performers on short notice. "Some of his acts hadn't seen a payday like that in a long time," snickers John Roberts, one of the producers of the original Woodstock. Gerry also spent lavishly, leasing the finest sound equipment, outfitting concession stands with state-of-the-art tents imported from the Netherlands, and installing five miles of new roads lined with split-rail fencing.
NO LOVE. Gerry considers his $10 million well spent, and by all accounts he did meet his main objective: to prove to his neighbors that the Bethel site is manageable. Back in 1969, Woodstock drew an underprovisioned throng of more than 400,000--seven times the population of Sullivan County. For many residents, Woodstock was not three days of peace and love but a brush with social apocalypse. Over the years, numerous attempts by outsiders to revive Woodstock as a concert site have foundered on the fears of the local populace. "Alan Gerry has reversed the mood of an entire county," says Jonathan Drapkin, the Sullivan County manager. "He got the Woodstock monkey off our backs."
Perhaps only Gerry, with his vast wealth and strong local ties, could have pulled it off. Except for a few years spent with his family in the Bronx during World War II and a brief stint in the U.S. Marines, Gerry has never resided anywhere but Liberty. Both of his married daughters live close by, and his only son will soon return from Syracuse Law School to help run the family investment portfolio.
Over the years, Liberty's favorite son has accumulated the trappings of wealth, including a 160-acre wooded estate and a large collection of Western art. There is a Rolls Royce in the garage and a private jet parked at the local airport. The plane comes in handy when Gerry and his wife, Sandra, travel to Florida, where they own a house in Naples.
But Gerry does not often make the trip to Naples and rarely stays more than a week or two when he does. He saves his Rolls for out-of-town trips, tooling around Liberty in his Ford Bronco instead. He recently adopted a stray dog, which he walks every morning, and grows his own vegetables, producing what one former employee calls "awesome corn." Tom Martin has been friends with Gerry since buying a TV set at his shop in the 1950s. "I can't see any change in Alan in all the time I've known him," he says.
Gerry opened that TV shop in a converted grain elevator in 1951. Five years later he branched out into the fledgling cable-TV business, which existed then mainly as a way to improve reception in remote areas. After wiring much of Sullivan County, Gerry painstakingly built a national system. Unlike most of his peers in the industry, he never took a major equity partner nor floated stock on Wall Street. Instead, he borrowed heavily and artfully as he built Cablevision into the country's eighth-largest cable operator, with 2,500 employees and 1.3 million subscribers in 18 states by the time he sold it three years ago.
COURTING MICKEY? At the time of the sale to Time Warner, Gerry owned 96% of Cablevision and came away with a capital gain of nearly $1 billion. He took his payment wholly in Time Warner stock, which has soared in value since the deal closed. Gerry is one of the media giant's largest shareholders, controlling 2.4% of its voting shares. Although he isn't on the Time Warner board, he maintains a close relationship with CEO Gerald Levin.
Time Warner is one of several potential partners, including Walt Disney Co., that have sent executives to tour the Woodstock site and confer with Gerry in his luxurious office hideaway near Liberty. In general, the visitors have been intrigued but noncommital. Says one recent guest: "He's off to a good start, but it's going to take a series of well-conceived events to see whether the market is really there."
In the cable industry, Gerry is considered an indomitable force. "The main thing about Alan is, he is incredibly determined," says Rocco Commisso, the former chief financial officer of Cablevision and now CEO of Mediacom, a cable operator in Middletown, N.Y. Gerry is applying that same sense of purpose to the Bethel project. "What I want to do is bring back the economic vitality we had here when I was growing up in the 1940s and 1950s," he says. "This can work. This will work."
It's quixotic, the notion of one man changing the course of deeply ingrained economic patterns, or of an ex-Marine breathing new life into the Woodstock legend. But then again, so is the idea of a high-school dropout turning a TV repair shop into a multibillion-dollar empire.