For the past decade, hopes for a revival in Sharon Springs have risen and fallen with the broken promises of the restoration of the historic Imperial Baths. The former spa sits crumbling on Lower Main Street, a great draw for those who like to photograph decay but not much else.
The once-booming resort was purchased by a South Korean company called Sharon Springs Inc. in 2004, and hopes rose. Nothing happened. The village helped secure a $1 million Restore New York grant five years later and hopes rose again: more stagnation. The company demolished the dilapidated Washington Hotel in 2013, another sign of progress that once again fizzled into delay and inaction.
“It never got off the ground, much to the dismay of the village, because that is a huge part of our history and a huge part of our economy,” said Sharon Springs Mayor Doug Plummer. “So it was very, very distressing.”
Local leaders and business owners are once again hopeful that the company’s problems have been resolved for good and that the project is finally on track. Village officials learned recently that the company had been struggling with internal legal problems, including a $6 million embezzlement scandal. The company came under the full control of one owner, Kyusung Cho, in March. With its financials and leadership on good footing, it has been able to secure capital to move forward.
“So at our meeting in April, they presented us with an exquisite plan for the restoration of the Imperial Baths,” said Plummer. “As a preservationist — I also own the American Hotel in Sharon Springs and many other historic structures — the fact that they are doing such a positive restoration of this grouping of structures is really exciting.”
Work crews are already in the buildings beginning asbestos removal, which the village granted permits for in May. The company is now working on an environmental review and full site plan to bring to the Planning Board.
In addition to the Imperial Baths, Sharon Springs Inc. bought the Adler Hotel, the Columbia Hotel, and the now-demolished Washington Hotel. If the Imperial Baths reopens and is a success, the company plans to subsequently renovate and reopen the Adler and Columbia.
Cho has said he plans to invest about $10 million to turn the Imperial Baths, which closed in 2005, into a modern luxury spa, mixing its historic character with Korean influences. He also owns a tour bus company called Dongbu Tour & Travel, which caters largely to South Koreans. Plummer said the spa will become a stop on the tours from New York City to major tourist destinations like Niagara Falls, and could see as many as 30,000 visitors a year.
For the handful of business owners who have been investing in the small Schoharie County village — population 544 — for the past 10 or 15 years, slowly renovating one historic structure after another, that’s good news — if it happens. And they’ve all learned by now to add that caveat.
Across the street from the Imperial Baths, where trucks now line up outside as workers bustle around the weather-worn entrance, Ron Ketelsen is slowly renovating the Roseboro, a 150-room hotel built in the mid to late 1800s. He’s already invested more than $1 million and “has a long way to go” to turn it into a complex with shops, lodging, a restaurant and a general store.
“It’s a great project,” he says of the Imperial Baths, “and it could do some great things for the village, if it does happen.”
Ketelsen and his partner bought the Roseboro last year and began renovation in September. Like many of the business owners in the village’s active Lower Main Street district — which includes the Imperial Baths, the popular Beekman 1802, and Plummer’s American Hotel, among a handful of others — they were attracted to the potential for historic renovation and the village’s Americana charm.
“It’s quite a unique village,” said Ketelsen, who is also president of the Sharon Springs Chamber of Commerce. “When you get here, there’s just something about it that people like.”
Antony Daou, owner of the Black Cat Cafe and Bakery and author of “Sharon Springs Guide 2010” and an upcoming sequel, said the village turned a corner about 15 years ago when Plummer and his partner Garth Roberts bought, restored and opened the American Hotel. The Black Cat followed soon after, and joined others like the Cobbler & Co. gift store to help form a sustainable business base on Lower Main Street.
“A whole bunch of us came to this place, and I’m talking dozens of people, and restored and renovated, one person after another, cleaned this up from what was a ghost town,” said Daou. “In the ’80s and ’90s, it was a complete, dilapidated ghost town.”
It is certainly a turnaround for the village, by any measure, but far from a revival.
The village was a booming destination, thanks to its multiple natural mineral spas, in the early 20th century until falling on hard times in the Great Depression, Daou wrote in his book. It climbed up again after World War II with investment from the Hasidic Jewish community, then once again fell into disuse in the ’70s and ’80s.
“I think what’s fascinating about Sharon Springs is its ups and downs have been so dramatic, and yet it keeps coming back,” said Daou. “It’s like a boxer that you can’t knock out.”
The “Fabulous Beekman Boys” cooking show, filmed in the town and village, gave Sharon Springs a kick in 2010, and their rising fame on “The Amazing Race” only added momentum.
“They’re a big part of this story,” said Daou. “Josh [Kilmer-Purcell] and Brent [Ridge] really helped to put us on the map.”
Daou will talk like this with any customer who comes into the humble, rustic-themed Black Cat Cafe, singing the village’s praises like a real estate agent, or maybe a proud parent:
“It has that something special.”
“It’s the kind of place you want to raise your kids.”
“The quintessential American village.”
Turning north from Route 20 onto Route 10, which winds downhill to Lower Main Street, is a transition from the expanses of farm fields and Stewart’s Shops, the practical landscape typical of much of rural upstate New York, to a small and surprising world of unusual historic charm, like a village kept in a bottle.
Plummer, a transplant from New York City who not only owns a major business in the village but serves as its mayor, knows well the dynamics that have played out here geographically: The village has been a resort for Jews while the broader town was largely Christian, it has been a draw for tourists of all stripes and transplants from New York City, and recently, has seen the rise of a significant gay population.
While some tensions arise from time to time as one might expect, he said, the community is surprisingly cohesive, perhaps because the longtime locals are so accustomed to the village attracting such diversity. (Plummer’s own story bears this out: He’s nonnative and openly gay, and was elected mayor after eight years as a trustee.)
“And we didn’t come in guns a-blazing,” he said. “We kind of got here saying, ‘This is an amazing place, do you mind if we join you?’ And the folks that have arrived with that mentality have done very well here and really found a niche for themselves.”
If the Imperial Baths delivers on its promises this time, Daou and others expect to see more development. Until that project gets its own hotels up and running, which will be years down the road under the best-case scenario, the village will have to respond to the demand for lodging. Right now, there are about 26 beds in the entire village, according to The New York House owner Kelly Button. There is also talk of bringing natural gas to the village for the Imperial project, which would help lower heating costs for many other businesses.
“It may actually make Sharon Springs that year-round destination we’ve all so longed to figure out how to do,” she said. “And it would be wonderful to have people here year round.”
At the American Hotel, Plummer welcomes the idea of new restaurants and hotels to compete with.
“The more the merrier,” he said. “[The Imperial Baths] is really far-reaching. It will change the economy of not only Sharon Springs, but the entire region, I think.”