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Mountain Home Magazine

All Roads Lead to Watkins

by Laurie Mercer

It’s a Beatles tune about the long and winding road that best describes Paul Thomas’s career path. He was born in Rochester, but grew up in Corning, where he eventually returned, and this became his “forever” place. His mother’s family had established roots in this part of rural upstate beginning around the 1850s. No wonder he feels at home here.

Educated at Cornell College of Agriculture and Life Sciences with a major in public communications, Paul spent a year in Japan teaching English following his graduation. Job hunting while supporting his new family took him to an early dot-com bust in Texas. Work then took him to other places, including the Chamber of Commerce in Goleta, California. Early in 2005, energized with a desire to get back to his family in Schuyler County, he spent the next thirteen years as executive director of the Seneca Wine Trail.

“People still ask me for my favorite wine,” he says of his experience. “I have to say I have my favorite people at every vineyard, but not a favorite wine.” He confesses, however, to having a favorite child―his only one, Griffin, who just earned a masters in education and is interviewing for jobs teaching English in high school in the Poughkeepsie area.

Paul assumed his new role as Tourism and Marketing Manager for the Watkins Glen Chamber of Commerce on April 3, 2019. His membership on the board of directors of the Watkins Glen Chamber led to his current appointment in a move resembling musical chairs. Brittany Gibson, who Paul replaced at the chamber, took Paul’s position on the Wine Trail.

While some people love the smell of burning rubber and automobile exhaust, others prefer the quietude of nature. Watkins Glen has both, and these days it has Paul to tout them.

“We’ve got the track (Watkins Glen International), the southern shore of Seneca Lake, Watkins Glen State Park―considered to be the most famous of all the state parks—and a committed group of board, staff, and members working really well together,” Paul says. “Two or three new members are coming in every month. Our strength is in connecting businesses of every size. The membership is very diverse―representing everything from mining salt to making cheese. And yet, we have a lot in common. We are all committed to seeing this part of the world thrive and prosper.”

Paul says in high season people always find their way here, but to revitalize visitor interest in the off season, the chamber just created Restaurant Week (October 28 to November 3) to bring additional foot traffic to the town’s established eateries and to encourage them to nosh at the newer ones. Agribusiness is well represented, too, in a new initiative, in concert with the Cornell Cooperative Extension, called Finger Lakes Farm Country, which describes more than 200 farm visitor locations in the county. Recently launched, this upgraded initiative is devoted to promoting farm-based tourism, running under the banner of “Explore Watkins Glen.”

In a village of approximately 2,000 people, it is remarkable to find a 778-acre state park where, within the span of two miles, the water drops 400 feet past 200-foot-high cliffs while generating nineteen waterfalls. Seneca Lake also hosts one of the country’s largest personal watercraft racing circuits. And speaking of speed, Watkins Glen International has the NASCAR Cup Series and Indy cars. They also host vintage sports car and motorcycle races, so seeing unusual vehicles in traffic downtown is not at all noteworthy.

Watkins Glen has always harbored some nostalgia for epic rock ‘n’ roll, because on July 28, 1973, the Glen’s Summer Jam hosted 600,000 people―creating the world record for a pop music festival. Featuring the legendary Grateful Dead, the Allman Brothers, and The Band, this event was one and a half times larger than the original Woodstock of fifty years ago. Paul says his earliest memory of the Glen itself was watching the laser light show on the rock walls when he was a kid.

Paul is naturally drawn to people, which may be why he always held a fascination for going to the barber shop when he was growing up in Corning. “The shop was on Market Street, and I always loved the banter,” he muses. “It seemed like such a great life being a barber. So three or four years ago I thought about doing a semi-retirement from my job, and I enlisted in a ten-month-long program of barber school in Elmira, plus my full-time work. The shop I always loved on Market Street had someone retiring, so they hired me.”

Protect me from what I want―it’s a popular truism. What people had initially warned him about―being on his feet all day long―proved to be his undoing. His legs and ankles preferred a desk job. After just six months he had to check being a barber off his bucket list, but he has no regrets. He says, “I still have my chair and about $l,000 of hardware.”

And Watkins Glen still has Paul.

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