The historic hotel in upstate New York that inspired the 1987 film “Dirty Dancing” will come to be known for its wealthy visitors doing downward dog and other yoga poses.
An Indian billionaire is transforming Kutsher's Country Club, once an all-inclusive getaway for Jews, into a $250 million yoga center for wealthy New Yorkers. Subhash Chandra, chairman of Essel Group, was present when work began this month on the 260,000 square-foot retreat on the banks of a lake in the Catskills Mountains, a 2.5-hour drive from the city.
The 64-year-old media entrepreneur is inheriting a legacy from the Kutsher family, who operated the longest-running hotel in the “Borscht Belt” or the “Jewish Alps,” a collection of kosher resorts that launched the careers of comedians Joan Rivers and Jerry Seinfeld.
“It's a no-brainer,” Mr. Chandra, who has a net worth of at least $2.8 billion, according to the Bloomberg Billionaires Index, said in an interview on June 19. “Here is this ancient wisdom which has not spread across the globe and it needs to help the world community.”
The timing is not coincidental. Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi, a friend of Mr. Chandra, lobbied the United Nations back in December to recognize June 21 — the day of the ground-breaking ceremony — as the International Day of Yoga. The center plans to open on that same day, a year from now.
Like Mr. Modi, Mr. Chandra saw an opportunity to use the ancient practice to re-brand India and himself and make inroads in the U.S. Mr. Chandra, whose Mumbai-based Essel conglomerate is best known for its television broadcaster Zee Entertainment Enterprise Ltd., said the potential billions to be made in helping Americans live a healthier lifestyle were obvious to him from the start.
“It's a very well-known fact that this country needs help in the health-and-wellness space — I hope I'm not politically wrong in mentioning that.” he said. “The kind of money being spent on part of GDP in health and wellness is unbelievable.”
Although up-to-date numbers are hard to find, a 2012 survey said 20.4 million Americans practiced yoga. By 2020, the yoga and pilates industry is forecast to grow at an annualized rate of 4% to $8.8 billion, according to a March report published by market research firm IBISWorld.
Mr. Chandra, who practices yoga and meditates daily, isn't alone in spotting the potential in reducing the girth of a nation with high obesity rates.
Fitbit Inc., which makes wearable fitness trackers, saw its sales nearly triple last year. San Luis Obispo, Calif.-based Mindbody Inc., which sells business-management software to the beauty and fitness industry, raised about $100 million this month in an initial public offering.
Mr. Chandra, who was born in the northern Indian district of Hisar, expects the center in the Catskills to generate $100 million in annual revenue by 2019. He plans to open five more centers in the U.S. in the next decade.
Mark Kutsher, whose great-grandfather founded Kutsher's Country Club, feels the place is now in safe hands.
“This is personal for me — the memories and nostalgia are extensive,” Kutsher said.
The hotel opened in 1907 as a low-budget escape for mainly Ashkenazi Jews who immigrated to flee the war in Europe and were banned from exclusively gentile vacation options. The name “Borscht Belt” is a word play on the term the “Bible Belt," in reference to the Ukrainian beet soup popular among Jews.
Post-World War II prosperity and assimilation created a boom for the Kutsher family and hundreds of other Catskills establishments like it to define an unapologetically kitschy style of an all-inclusive vacation.
For a fixed price, families could gorge on all-you-can-eat kosher meals, play shuffleboard, tennis and golf, and swim. Or in the case of Frances ''Baby'' Houseman, the heroine of ''Dirty Dancing'' played by Jennifer Grey, fall in love with Johnny Castle, the camp's dance instructor played by Patrick Swayze.
But as flights and modern air-conditioning became more accessible in the 1960s — when the romantic coming-of-age movie was set — the gradual decline set in.
Marisa Scheinfeld, who grew up spending summers at her grandparents' condo at Kutsher's, said she is all for anything that will ''bring the economy back into the county.”
“It's never going to be what it was,” said Ms. Scheinfeld, a photographer. “But I do hope that the development at Kutsher's will yield jobs for sure and more people traveling up there.”