Sims Foster has mastered the proprietor’s stance. From the kitchen door in the tavern of the Arnold House, his nine-room retreat near Shandelee Lake in Sullivan County, he stands ready to glide forward at the slightest hint of customer need. A hipster-ish family eats beneath a vintage metal sign advertising the now-defunct tourist attraction Catskill Game Farm; toddler in high chair babbles happily. A group of eight boisterously competes with ‘80s rock and roll on the tavern’s sound system. At the bar, an overnight guest sips his second martini. The atmosphere is relaxed—pool table, vinyl album covers on the wall, bartender in pink gingham—and Foster blends right in: plaid shirt and shorts, a Richie Cunningham scrub to his cheek. Like his guests, one minute he may be hauling a canoe out of a shed, the next tipping back a microbrew on the hotel’s back deck.
His focus and intensity, however, are anything but casual. Arms folded, eyes scanning the room, he’s tracking who’s enjoying what. As staff passes in and out of the kitchen, he leans discreetly sideways with a whispered word. Yes, attention must be paid, but this is a Monday night in the Catskills!
Still, Foster’s intensity may be his best weapon. If the future of the Catskills isn’t exactly riding on his athletic shoulders—after all, an $800 million casino is underway down the road—the region’s broader health and wellbeing still depend on committed and impassioned business revivers like himself. Born and raised in Livingston Manor, where his mother was a schoolteacher (“same classroom for forty years”) and his father a teacher and principal (“a very gregarious guy”) Foster had the kind of Boys’ Life upbringing that many upstater-come-latelys yearn to reinstate. His father took him for haircuts in a back room at the Concord Hotel: “An accordion door would close, and he and the barber would have a nip back by the Playboy calendar. Then we’d get an egg cream at the soda shop.” Troublemaking meant wandering the woods, digging up milk bottles from trash pits.
Like many ambitious tiny-towners, he ditched the area as soon as he was able, first for a music scholarship to a college in West Virginia, then for New York City. Through a series of circumstances, he wound up first as a maintenance man at Lotus, one of the primary celebrity nightclubs in the early-aughts, and soon after as its assistant general manager. The quiet, grounded upstater who seemed capable of handling any crisis was “all of a sudden being measured for Hugo Boss suits and outfitted with an earpiece I didn’t know how to use.” What he did know how to do was to be house mom to the club’s 2000 revelers, promoting fun while keeping them and himself safe.
“If we have capital, we put it into something up here.”
Foster moved on to work with chef Geoffrey Zakarian at the Michelin-starred restaurant Country. These days he’s a senior vice president at Commune Hotels and Resorts, overseeing cuisine and nightlife at nearly 50 hotels worldwide. But the more his career blossomed, the more his hometown tugged. On weekends he returned to Livingston Manor, opening a series of coffee shops and restaurants before fording the streamlet into hotel ownership with the Arnold House.
Foster and his wife, Kirsten Harlow, an economist at the Federal Reserve, never bought property in NYC. “If we have capital,” he says, “we put it into something up here.” Currently, they’re finishing up a second hotel in nearby North Branch. The goal is to build a hospitality business in the Catskills that will eventually support them (and new son Maximillian) full time. “I have a lot of history here,” he says. “My family’s been here for over a hundred years. One of my best friends growing up, his grandfather owned a fishing shack on the lake. I remember thinking, ‘One day, if I could just have one of these little houses…’” A Boys Life gleam of pride comes into his eye. His shack and then some is making a good life.