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Emily Fisher sits in the Great Room at the Emerson Resort & Spa; she became sole owner of the facility last year.

A Spa for All

The Emerson's new owner reaches out

By Karen Angel

Photos by Philip Kamrass

EMILY FISHER NEVER SET OUT TO OWN own an upscale resort. But in 1992, her close friend Dean Gitter persuaded her to invest in Catskill Corners, which opened in 1996. After Gitter was sidelined by illness in 2009, Fisher took on a managerial role. In 2012, she bought his stake and in November became sole owner of the property, now called the Emerson Resort & Spa after author Ralph Waldo Emerson, whose essay "Nature" led to the American Conservation Movement and the establishment of the 600-square-mile Catskill Forest Preserve.

"I was needed," says Fisher, whose first husband, the late Dick Fisher, was a onetime Morgan Stanley chairman and New York Stock Exchange director. But Fisher vowed to do more than run a fancy resort, making it her mission to also make a difference in the Emerson's Mount Tremper community.

"We are absolutely committed to this area and jobs in this area," says Fisher, 78, who has owned a summer home in Haines Falls since 1971. "We'd like this to be a place where people didn't have to leave to find jobs. That's why I have become involved in learning the hospitality business." All 105 of the Emerson's employees are from the area, placing the resort among the top private employers in Ulster County.

 

Not 'just for Manhattan people'

The resort's best word of mouth comes from its own employees, Fisher says. "We got the word out through our employees that we weren't just for Manhattan people and that we value our community members," she says.

Emerson CEO Naomi Umhey, a 35-year resident of Phoenicia, prides herself on a collegial management style.

Umhey ticks off all the ways the resort has reached out to the community in the years since the original inn was demolished by a fire in 2005, then expanded and reopened in 2007 under the name Emerson Resort & Spa. Redesigned with an opulent Asian theme, it moved across the road next to the more casual, log cabin-style Lodge at the Emerson, linking the resort's two hotels (which have a combined 53 rooms), two restaurants (the Catamount and the Phoenix), spa and retail facilities.

The Emerson has raised thousands to buy toys for needy local children. It has provided wall space for local artists to hang their work and hold openings. It has donated rooms for the Cornell Cooperative Extension to host environmental conferences, the Phoenicia International Festival of the Voice to hold rehearsals and a kids' camp, and the Woodstock Film Festival to convene.

A recent dinner that the Emerson organized for the Town of Shandaken's recreation center raised $1,500 to buy fishing poles for local children and hold an Esopus Creek-side barbecue.

The resort also has leased a field on its property to the Town of Shandaken for $1 to use for school soccer games, arranging for contractors in the area to donate topsoil and sod and level the field. Umhey's husband, who owns an excavating business, was a major player.

Along with Fisher's influence, the hiring of Tony Lanza as marketing director "has made the Emerson more active in our community," says Shandaken Supervisor Robert Stanley. "Tony is very good at getting the word out about events and coordinating with the community."

Lanza, an experienced fundraiser and former longtime superintendent of the Belleayre Mountain Ski Center, joined the Emerson team late last year. "No matter what size business you are, it's imperative that you become responsible members of the community and that you're not just taking but giving to the community," says Lanza, who lives in Highmount. "Especially during economically difficult times, it's more important to be working with charities."

Administrative assistant Kaite Brady, who lives in Fleischmanns and has worked at the Emerson since 2007, adds, "Everyone's working hard because everyone's from this area. Everyone wants us to be community-friendly."

Massage therapist Kimberly Hughs gives a massage in the spa at The Emerson.

Giving to others

Fisher grew up in a middle-class Philadelphia home and attended Quaker schools and Vassar College on scholarships. Her father, a minister, emphasized the importance of helping the less fortunate, a vision that her first husband's success on Wall Street helped her fulfill. She has since donated millions to educational, cultural and environmental causes.

"My father emphasized the importance of caring, generosity and giving to others," says Fisher.

Her influence in the area has stretched beyond the resort. She supports a number of Catskills institutions, including the Belleayre Conservatory, the Catskill Mountain Foundation and the Mountain Top Historical Society. A onetime elementary-school teacher, she has a master's degree in education administration from Harvard University and is vice chair of Bard College's board of trustees and chair of the board of overseers at Bard College at Simon's Rock, an early-college program in Massachusetts, where the Fisher Science and Academic Center is named in her honor.

"Living in the Catskills provides a realization of how difficult it can be to find work in the area, raise a family and frankly, sometimes just survive, let alone prosper," Fisher says. "This is a community whose members feel compelled to help their neighbor in whatever way they can. Lending my support is simply the right thing to do."

 

A canopied bed in one of the resort's suites.Reaching out

After assuming her managerial role in 2009, Fisher wasted no time in reaching out to the community.

"One of the primary changes we made was to reopen the Catamount Restaurant and invite the community in," says Fisher, referring to the Lodge at the Emerson's eatery, which was used for private events such as weddings from 2008-09. "Before that, we hadn't done a very good job connecting with the community. What I've done since 2009 is make the spa and the Catamount more accessible to the community by having more reasonable rates."

Ads in local newspapers and word of mouth have let community members know they are welcome at the spa and restaurants and can come in for a tour. "A lot of people would just pass by," Brady says. "They never thought they could stop in, they thought it was just for guests. Now we get a lot of people in for tours.

The Emerson's fitness center has 200 community members. For $42.50 a month, they can also use the hot tub, sauna and steam room, and they receive discounts on spa treatments, fitness classes and meals at the restaurants. A dog park built two years ago is also open to the public.

 

World's Largest Kaleidoscope

The resort's most famous attraction "the World's Largest Kaleidoscope, certified by a Guinness World Record“ draws a steady stream of visitors to see the psychedelic shows that run throughout the day. Built in 1996, the kaleidoscope is housed inside a 56-foot-high silo in an 1860 farmhouse, which was on the property when Gitter bought it and is integrated into the resort's architecture. The farm's barn has been converted to retail space where clothing, antiques and locally sourced items such as jam, candles and honey are sold.

Christie Scheele, a local landscape painter who curated an art show hanging in the Emerson's lobby, says Fisher's philanthropic, inclusive bent is evident in the resort's management style. "Under their early management, they tried to keep every guest to themselves and not send them out to the community," says Scheele, who recently sold one of her works to an Emerson guest for $4,000. "Now there have been all kinds of efforts to link with various organizations, and they've done fundraisers and donations. Every opportunity to link to the community, they grab it."

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