Fantasy Land
In Coudersport, PA (Adelphia HQ), real life tangled with unreal ambition
Matt Taibbi

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FANTASY LAND

In Coudersport, Pennsylvania, real life tangled with unreal ambition

COUDERSPORT, PA--For many miles as you travel south into the heart of Potter County, PA--"God's Country," according to the welcome sign--you will encounter some peculiar scenery on both sides of the road.

wendingcreek.jpgFor long stretches at a time, the road will be lined with well-kept log-link fences, behind which rest a series of farms of strangely uniform appearance: carefully manicured rows of sweet corn and other crops, wrapped around tight formations of windowless, unblemished dark brown barns. Nothing in the world is more brown than these brown barns. They are a deep, almost biological color, without the faintest hint of warping or weather damage. No other barn in the area looks anything like them. You might say that the brown-barn farms look like someone's idea of a farm, rather than actual farms.

Near the county seat, Coudersport, there is a brown-barn farm lining both sides of route 49. With the fresh paint job, the Currier-and-Ives log-link fences, and paved entranceways, it looks great--unless you're a farmer. Then it looks a little strange, because a field that is normally full of sunflowers at this time of year is instead overgrown with mustard weed. Despite the expensive exterior, and the state-of-the-art equipment housed in those brown barns, whoever was farming this land let this field get away from him, probably seeding it at the wrong time.

That farm and countless others in the county belong to Adelphia founder John Rigas, who owns them through a company called Wending Creek farms. They are a symbol of the weird clash of fantasy and reality that has rudely descended upon the region in the past three months or so, since the Adelphia scandal broke and the national press made Coudersport, in the words of the local head of the historical society, "the most famous little town in America."

Some things are timeless, and some things just never were. The story of Coudersport shows how blurred the line between the two can become when a garrison of the global economy decides not only to set up shop in a pretty little American town, but to call it home.

Although it has at times been home to tanneries, a glass works, and a metallurgy plant, Potter County has primarily been known for two things over the years: hunting and farming. Long before Adelphia arrived, the complexion of both things had begun to be altered by the growth of the corporate economy in the outside world.

Roy Thompson is a sheep and poultry farmer whose family has been farming in Coudersport for almost a hundred years. He has a farm with about 350 sheep on a hill in the township of Hebron a few miles from Coudersport proper. His wife, Jane, is a landscaper, and their elegant log farmhouse overlooking a valley, with its lovingly kept beds of flowers and potted plum trees, looks like a little Garden of Eden. A former County Commissioner, Thompson is exceedingly amiable and keeps a bemused smile on his face that tells you that he's satisfied enough with the way life has turned out, and doesn't begrudge you if you feel like agreeing with him. Like a lot of farmers, he looks more comfortable in his perfectly faded jeans than you ever will be.

Thompson explains that a number of factors have seriously altered the nature of farming in Coudersport over the last twenty to thirty years. For one thing, there has been a trend toward consolidation. Where there were once several hundred dairy farms with 25-50 cows in Potter County, there are now relatively few, and many of them have been replaced by a dozen or so larger farms with 400-800 cows. The bigger margins that large farms can produce has made it harder for smaller farmers to compete and, more importantly, prohibitively expensive to start a new farm. As a result, he said, fewer and fewer young people are getting into farming.

"When you talk about farming, people always say, 'That old farmer,'" he says, laughing. "The tremendous cost of getting into the farming business has made it very difficult in the last thirty years, especially with the mechanization and the new equipment. Young people are just finding something else to do."

There are other factors eating away at the labor pool, obviously. For all the predictable reasons--media-induced attraction to urban life, the promise of high-paying jobs in the city--more and more young people are leaving town and never coming back. Of the five high schools in the county, all but two have dropped their vocational agricultural schools. The dearth of young farm hands has led to the appearance of Mexican labor in the area in the last year, something Thompson said he would never have thought possible in a family-based farming community like Potter County.

Ironically, with the gradual disappearance of the younger generation to the cities in search of money, wealthy outsiders have begun to flow in, bringing about another phenomenon that undermines local agriculture. As smaller farms struggle to survive, farmers are selling off their properties for development. "Farmers are dividing their properties up into 100 lots, so that everyone can come in and have 5 acres of God's country," Thompson explains. Wealthy retirees and businessmen in search of weekend retreats come in and buy up old farmhouses, which in addition to reducing the number of active farms has the effect of driving up local real estate prices.

"It doesn't take many wealthy people coming in to drive up prices," Thompson explains. This in turn provides a further dis-incentive for young people to try to start up a farm, all of which makes it less and less likely with each passing year that any of the subdivided farms will ever be put back together again.

As if it weren't enough that the local kids were leaving home, some in Coudersport say that even the goddamn deer are moving to the suburbs. Where Coudersport once did a brisk tourist trade in hunters coming from all over to mine Potter County's forests, the flow in has slowed to a trickle in recent years. "The deer herd is getting smaller," explains Donald Gilliland, editor of The Coudersport Leader-Enterprise. "Beyond that, the deer are all moving to the suburbs of Pittsburgh, feeding on the garbage... Now you have guys who would have come here in the past, and they don't have to come, because they can shoot deer right in their own backyards."

Gilliland, a quick-witted type with a red beard who looks like a distantly malevolent version of the Lucky Charms pitchman, is a classic editor's editor: his office is a nightmare of four- and five-foot high newspaper piles, pens, obscured furniture, and incomprehensible strips of paper. His desk features only one prominent non-pulp-based object: a desk lamp in the shape of the Starship Enterprise. He is, after all, captain of the local version.

Gilliland has had a long year. Two big stories involving his town have forced him to receive more national journalists in the past nine months than even the most heinous sinner should be forced to endure in a lifetime. The first came last fall, when a local lunatic by the name of August Kreis announced that he was going to make Potter County--which incidentally was a key station on the Underground Railroad before the Civil War--the new home of a Neo-Nazi Aryan Nation. For months afterward, a seemingly endless succession of journalists rushed into town to run fast-food media features touting Potter County as the "new Idaho." After a mostly unsuccessful effort at warding these belligerents off, Gilliland watched with relief as the story finally died down earlier this year. Almost on cue, the Adelphia story exploded and the streets of Coudersport were instantly thick with cameras again.

"The journalists basically did two stories," he says. "The first was how the locals blindly supported John Rigas and were crushed by his downfall. The second was a story about how the town wasn't going to survive now that Adelphia was probably going to go under. Neither were really true."

Gilliland's aggressive, in-depth coverage of the Adelphia story should have been a message in itself to reporters that the idea that John Rigas governed Coudersport by fiat was a myth. No newspaper controlled by Rigas would have run the stuff that he ran. Back on June 12, Gilliland ran documents and illustrations he'd obtained of Adelphia's apparently secret plans to revamp the center of town--which included massive, creepily neo-classical designs for a grand hotel and convention center, a "corporate campus" in the center of town, and a new borough building. Gilliland juxtaposed those against pictures of local landmarks Rigas already owned, but had left to rot, like the "Old Hickory" building, a beautiful old house that for years had been home to the most popular bar in town. Gilliland also ran stories about ecological damage caused by the now-notorious Rigas golf course, and while much of the local population was still aghast over the "perp walk" arrest of Rigas in New York, Gilliland was running the only detailed account of the Rigas indictment of any print reporter anywhere.

"I look at it as something you do for history's sake," he said. "Even though it might not be the most politic thing to do, you have to put it out there so that 100 years from now, people can look back and know what happened here."

Most distressing to Gilliland is the widely-held notion around the country that Coudersport now won't survive. "People have this fairy-tale notion that the town is suddenly going to curl up and die without Adelphia," he said. "It's just not true. It's insulting."

There were, however, a lot of fairy tales in Coudersport in the last fifteen years, most of them of Rigas's making. In the entire pattern of Adelphia behavior over the last few decades, one can detect the outlines of Rigas's relentless attempts to realize a young man's sentimental fantasy of returning home victorious. Rigas, whose family came from Wellsville (where they ran a hot dog restaurant that Rigas still owns), spent his twenties in Coudersport, and got his start in business here, borrowing $300 to buy the local movie theater (which he also still owns). Residents who remember Rigas from that time inevitably fail to recall many details about him from that era; he must have been very inconspicuous. More than once, I heard him described as "that little man who ran the movie theater."

That little man was on his way, however. After the movie theater venture, he started a cable company in the area, one of the first in the country, then moved on to found a second one in his other hometown, Wellsville. From there he founded cable systems all across Western Pennsylvania and New York, building a mighty company that he incorporated under the name Adelphia in 1972, once again placing the headquarters in Coudersport.

It's not farfetched to imagine that Rigas, who is famously proud of his Greek heritage, might have seen in his return to Coudersport a little of Odysseus returning home after conquering Troy. In a recent interview with The Buffalo News, he himself called his downfall and arrest a "Greek Tragedy," and the architectural choices he made in building the company headquarters in Coudersport--a garish structure with grandiose, Athenian pillars--suggest that there was a little more at work in his mind at the time than mere concern over functionality.

As conscious as he was of the cosmetic trappings of epic success, Rigas appears not to have read the endings of the stories he modeled his life on. Everywhere he went, he behaved exactly like a classic tragic hero, defying nature and trying to alter his fate. Rigas clearly wanted to retire among friends in Coudersport beloved as one of their own, but the road he'd traveled to become wealthy had changed him and made it impossible to really blend in in any genuine way.

One Coudersport resident I talked to, for instance, recalled being hired by Rigas to clear some brush away from the front of his house so that he would have a clear view of a pond set off on his property below. When the job was finished, coudersport2.jpg
.
Rigas realized with dismay that the pond was too brown for his liking: he wanted a pond that would shine azure blue in the sunlight. Rigas eventually decided to have the pond filled with a chemical that would clear away the sediment and simulate a clear body of water.

Then there was the matter of the golf course. Never built, the property it was supposed to occupy now stands overgrown with ragged brush and eroding banks of moved earth. When its construction was discussed with the county planners, concerns were voiced by the locals that the golf course might have an adverse impact on the already-existing Coudersport Golf Club. After all, in a county with only 17,000 residents, it would be hard for the new club to avoid moving in on the existing club's business.

Adelphia spokesmen brushed aside these concerns. At the meeting with the planning commission, company spokesman Carla Brown Horn insisted that, "It will not have any effect on Coudersport."

When county planners balked, not able to see how this might be, Brown Horn laid it out in plain English. "Coudersport Golf Club is an inexpensive golf club. This will be more costly."

Meanwhile, Wending Creek farms was buying up properties all over the county, dotting the landscape with its telltale brown barns. Other farmers watched in increasing irritation as the farms, subsidized with Adelphia money, continued to be managed haphazardly, with little attention or even obvious interest in turning a profit. Rigas was not a farmer, but for some reason he liked owning farms. Locals found themselves wishing they'd had the money to burn on expensive equipment. The lack of interest in making the farms financially viable was an insult to locals who had to fight to keep themselves above water.

Throughout all of this time, Adelphia itself was venturing further and further into the realm of financial fantasy. Everyone knows the story by now: loans from Adelphia to private Rigas ventures, the leveraging of the company to give the Rigases cash to buy more stock in the company, a spending spree that created an illusion of wealth at a time when the company was steeped in debt, misreported expenses and numbers of cable subscribers, bizarre co-borrowing agreements, etc., etc.... most of which, in the end, served mainly to fund the family's quirky expressions of local largesse: farms, golf courses, buildings around town.

In the end, it was all a dream, as hopeless as the idea that you can ever come home again.

The company's dizzying demise was doubly shocking to the people of Coudersport. The thing most fundamental to the nature of a small town is that everything is visible. When you walk down the street, you know who it is you're passing. "Before Adelphia, I knew everyone," says Bob Currin, of the local historical society.

And though a few farms have fences, that doesn't keep anyone from seeing how your crops are doing. The idea of three or four billion dollars simply vanishing overnight--or, worse, being shown to have never existed at all--is an alien concept to people who are used to understanding wealth as something you can see with your own two eyes.

"My idea of wealth is that it's something you can see," says Thompson. "It's something you can put your hands on and spread over many, many people."

Thompson is a successful farmer, but his philosophy is to stay small. He and his wife run their farm with two farmhands and have carved out a decent business. In addition to sheep, he raises pastured chickens--chickens that are raised in movable pens, so that they feed on different sections of earth every day. They're gourmet chickens and he sells as many as he can raise, and he sells almost all of them locally. He worked for many years as a manager at the Pure Carbon metallurgy plant nearby and knows something about business, or at least enough to know that there's a lot of money moving around out there in a way that many people insist makes sense.

Nonetheless, he's not convinced. He believes small agriculture is a stabilizing influence on a community. If he goes under, it's no catastrophe, someone else will take his place. You get enough people farming and it's hard to shake a community.

"Sometimes small is better," he says. 'I know there are people out there who believe in the economy of scale. It may make sense on paper and in linear thinking. But the bigger the train... the bigger the wreck. Nothing works in isolation.'"

 
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