CHAUTAUQUA, N.Y. (WIVB) — About 85 miles southwest of Buffalo, a serene 750-acre community sits on the shores of Chautauqua Lake.
“There’s roughly 900 private homes on the grounds, and we operate and manage somewhere close to 150 buildings,” said Michael Hill, the President of The Chautauqua Institution.
About 300 people live on the grounds of the Chautauqua Institution year-round, and many more come during their Summer Season.
There are cafes and restaurants on the premises, as well as shops, a library, a post office, a 4,000-seat amphitheater, plus houses operated by 15 different religious denominations. It all sits on two miles of the lakefront property.
“It’s most often been described, when a first-time visitor comes here, as if it’s a Norman Rockwell painting,” Hill said.
So what happens there?
Besides the external beauty, the Institution has an internal mission, which is the crux behind why so many people live there and visit.
For about two months each summer, weekly themes are explored. Each day, speakers come to the grounds to give their expertise — “to help citizens understand what were the great pressing issues of the day,” Hill said.
“That brings everyone from politicians to heads of state to key religious leaders, to thought leaders, to artists, who are unpacking themes.”
And the hope is you open your mind when you’re there.
“So if you’re a liberal person and you hear a progressive speaker on Monday and you’re delighted by that, if we do this right, you’re going to hear a conservative perspective on the same topic or similar topic the next day that may push your buttons a little bit,” Hill said. “And maybe in the middle of the week, we have a centrist viewpoint that pulls those two things together.”
But the lectures that happen at the amphitheater are just the starting point. Hill says it’s the conversations throughout the community throughout the week that really bring their mission to life.
“The real secret sauce of Chautauqua is the interaction of people between events,” he said. “They’re talking about what they heard and what they saw, and in the most wonderful ways, seeing if people agree, disagree, where are they with all of this.”
Some of the themes this summer include friendship and national parks. They also dig deeper into topics that resonate in our current climate.
Last summer, during a week revolving around homes in America, author Salman Rushdie was supposed to have a conversation with a man who co-founded a refuge for writes whose lives are threatened over their work. Rushdie, who’s life has been threated, was attacked on stage.
“I’m very grateful, as he noted, to the many Chautauquans who rushed the stage, not only to secure the assassin, but to help Mr. Rushdie, and ultimately save his life.”
Rushdie now lives with blindness in his right eye.
Hill said they’ve reflected on that devastating moment, and have made changes.
“Some things will be notable to people, whether that is wands at the gates, or for certain events, metal detectors,” he said. “There’s a clear bag policy now and we’ve done some things that we won’t talk about publicly, because the best way to ruin a security plan is to tell people what that is. But we’re confident that people coming back to the institution will be safe and we’re looking forward to having them return.”
Since 1874, the grounds have been an ‘institution’ in Chautauqua County … literally.
A recent economic impact study done by an Erie, Pa. consulting firm found more than 100,000 people visit the grounds each year, and most stay overnight. More than 3,200 jobs are supported by The Institution, leading to a total economic impact of more than $233 million in the county.
“We represent 50% of all the tourism income in Chautauqua County – one entity,” Hill said. “And tourism is one of the major business drivers for the county.”
What’s more: property owners on the Institution own just 2 percent of properties in the county, but make up 15 percent of the real property taxes in the county.
For more information on that study, click here.
The summer season kicks off this Sunday. For more information on visiting The Chautauqua Institution, click here.
And if you can’t visit, you can watch the speakers via a streaming service, provided by The Institution for $54 for the year.