Mark Birman patiently invests in Fleischmanns revival
By Jennifer Kabat
Mark Birman stands in a storefront across from the post office and grocery on Main Street in Fleischmanns. The walls have been stripped to the studs and insulation, and exposed I-beams cross the ceiling overhead. The floor is raw wood, and the room itself is raw, chilly this late April afternoon. Birman waves broadly, painting a picture of what he envisions for the space: a restaurant, a bakery café, a gallery, a destination.
“We have this special thing here,” he says, “and I want a restaurant to come in that is fully dedicated to that what’s seasonal and local and to promoting the area.” The way he talks about his vision makes you want to see it too. Upstairs are bright apartments with refinished wood floors and the smell of new carpets in the hallways. All four apartments are now currently for rent.
Birman might be the local tennis pro, but he has bigger interests than simply serves and backhands. He owns property in Manhattan, and his ventures here, two buildings in Fleischmanns, are somewhere between Field of Dreams and a small-town Trump. Like Trump, the buildings are named for him. The first, where we stand now, is the “Birman Building,” and he laughs wondering how he’ll get Birman into the name of the second, which he just bought. “The woman at the bank,” he chuckles, “was suggesting, ‘The Other Birman Building.’”
Standing outside on the gravel where a neighboring building once stood, he talks of landscaping and picnic tables. You can nearly see the folks here in summer. He calls the purchases “a good investment” – and he’s not simply talking about what he paid. The cost might have been low but he’s invested a great deal in the property for everything from stripping it back to the raw elements to reconfiguring the apartments upstairs.
Sees strong value
“The value will hold,” he says emphatically. “It’s certainly not getting any worse in Fleischmanns, and more than that, I live here. I go to the post office every day, drive by it every day. This is my village, and I want this town to be as vibrant as it can be. The elements are in place, but far from my personal feelings, the value was good and the timing was good. I’m not just on a mission to save Fleischmanns.
Today Birman wears a white dress shirt and baseball cap emblazoned “Tennis Everyone,” the name of his coaching business. His leather shoes are of the sort that is soft and luxuriant and probably Italian. His voice sounds like that of an unreconstructed New Yorker’s, few of whom exist anymore, and it’s rare to hear that heavy an accent up in the Catskills these days. He grew up in the city, the son of Polish immigrants who both survived the concentration camps, and spent much of his childhood here. He took his first steps at the old Patria Hotel, and by the early ’70s his parents had built the house where Birman lives now in Halcott Center. He has a long and abiding love of the area, describing it as “ home” even if he did not literally grow up here. When rethinking his career in the law, he decided to move back.
Down the street, his second building is at the eastern side of the village. A rambling structure, it’s been known variously over the years as the Evergreen and Emory Brook. Inside stands a grand piano and chairs and tables strewn about like the occupants left in a hurry. The place has a ghostly sense, like you can practically still hear someone at piano. The kitchen has all the professional equipment restaurants require, something Birman would know having attended The Culinary Institute. He says the place could be up and running in a couple of months.
He talks about his ideal tenant: someone like Alice Waters. She brought a revolution to Northern California where she changed how people ate and is credited with spurring the growth of farmers’ markets in and around San Francisco.
“I don’t see why it can’t work here,” he says and sees that the building could be a destination with rooms and dining. At a time when local food is particularly hip, with its own catchphrase, “locavore,” and people downstate are flocking to the Catskills to get married for that rural-farm vibe, his plans seem sensible. He wants, though, to find the right tenant to take it forward instead of running it himself. That could be a long shot, particularly when restaurants are notoriously risky ventures and Fleischmanns a long way from its former status as a tourist haven.
Up two dark staircases is a strange warren of single rooms Birman plans on turning into spacious suites. Looking out a bathroom window at the village parking lot, he say he wants to lease it back from the village, not for his or his tenant’s sole use, but to landscape it and make it look inviting.
He turns back and says, “People keep asking if I got a steal. I didn’t, the seller should be happy with the price paid, but it’s an investment, and with the Belleayre Resort and ORDA and stores like the Tinderbox, changes are afoot in Fleischmanns. And my time scale?” he asks rhetorically. “Long. I’m patient. I want the right tenant that’s right for the village. One property prospers, the next property prospers.”