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Chautauqua: a family-friendly lake and intellectual mecca

Chautauqua Lake. Photo: The Chautauqua Institution

Dear reader,

In rural southwestern New York State, there is a small lakefront town named Chautauqua. Less than 200 people live there year round. At the start of summer, when vacation-home owners and their Airbnb guests arrive, the population swells to more than 10,000. During peak season in July and August, the lakefront town accommodates over 100,000 people, most of whom come to attend an annual assembly of cultural, artistic, recreational and interfaith spiritual events.

Never heard of Chautauqua? You’re not alone. It’s been described as a “hidden utopia” and a “cultural oasis” concealed in one of the most rural corners of the Northeast. Chautauqua is an Iroquois word that means “a bag tied in the middle” or “two moccasins tied together” which describes the shape of the lake. The Escape Home’s Molly Cuddy has the scoop.

An arts & culture mecca

The town is best known as home to the Chautauqua Institution, which hosts the summer assembly and brings in headline speakers from around the world to discuss a variety of topical issues.

The Chautauqua Opera performing Ghosts of Versailles. Photo: The Chautauqua Institution

The institution’s sessions “promote conversation and promote reflections on performance and creativity and curiosity and values,” says Tom Becker, who was the president of the Chautauqua Institution for 13 years before retiring in 2016. “It’s a weird balance of intensity and relaxation. There really isn’t anything like it in the whole world.”

The Chautauqua Institution was founded in 1874 and is credited with creating the concept of adult continuing education and mixing vacation learning in a rural setting with entertainment, culture and politics. The concept traveled across the country and became known as the “Chautauqua Movement”.

A rust belt favorite grows in popularity

In recent decades, however, the lake resort community was little known outside of Cleveland, Buffalo and Pittsburgh, its closest big-city neighbors.

Stephanie Novinc, who lives in Cleveland, has been visiting the area since 1967.

“As a kid my parents and a lot of other people who lived in our area had campers, permanent campers in a place called Camp Chautauqua,” she says. “It was really small at first and it grew and grew and grew.”

A home in Chautauqua. Photo: The Chautauqua Institution

In recent years, Chautauqua has been gaining attention from a variety of visitors and second-home buyers, including snowbirds who want to escape the sweltering summer heat of Florida and Arizona. Some vacation homeowners come from as far away as Australia and South Africa, usually because they have some connection to the institution, or they have a friend or family member who is involved with the institution.

But the biggest new group of vacation-home buyers are from New York City. “It’s being discovered by New Yorkers because they see value,” says Karen Goodell, a real estate agent at ERA Team VP who has sold homes in Chautauqua for 40 years. Like a growing number of her clients, Goodall lives in New York City and spends summers in Chautauqua.

Family-friendly fun

The “value” to which Goodell refers involves the ability to buy a gate pass, or ticket, that provides access to hundreds of events, classes, performances and recreational activities during the institution’s nine-week summer assembly. This summer, a gate pass for one week is priced at $550 for those 26 years and older and $185 for those ages 13 to 25 years old. The gate pass allows individuals to attend almost any event the institution has to offer. There are programs for adults and children. “It’s the best deal around,” Goodell says.

“If your grandparents and your parents and your siblings and nieces and nephews were all (to go) on a vacation somewhere. This would be a place where all of you would have [enjoyable] experiences,” Becker says.

Chautauqua Lake. Photo: The Chautauqua Institution

“It’s extremely, extremely family oriented and that is what I like about it,” Novinc concurred. “It’s just down-home fun.”

In the summer of 2020, when Covid-19 precautions shut down much of the economy, the institution canceled its summer events for the first time since its founding. Last summer, the institution was running programs at about 60% capacity.

This summer, Chautauqua is hoping the program will be back in full swing. The calendar of events already includes performances by singer Sheryl Crow and the Dance Theatre of Harlem; and lectures by author and Washington Post columnist Fareed Zakaria and Constanze Stelzenmüller, an expert on trans-Atlantic foreign policy at the Brookings Institution.  They both will be part of a lecture series titled “What Should be America’s Role in the World?”

Chautauqua real estate: something for everyone

Most homes in Chautauqua range between $500,000 and $700,000, but prices are considerably higher for homes on Chautauqua Lake, which is 19 miles long and has 41 miles of lakefront. Last year, homes on the lake sold for between $1.5 million and $3 million, Goodell says. Condos, which are also available, are far less expensive, with many starting in the $150,000 to $250,000 range.

Some vacationers stay for only a few weeks at a time, while others stay for the entire summer. But Goodell suspects some homeowners and renters may start to stay for longer periods due to more lax work-from-home policies because of Covid-19. “It’s been accepted more as a way of operating,” Goodell says. “I really do think Chautauqua and other communities like ours are going to benefit from this new way of working.”

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