The future of Belleayre

Above: "Downhill," a documentary by Jason Latorre of I Said Cut Productions about the Belleayre Mountain Ski Center.

News broke last week that Governor Andrew Cuomo’s administration is poised to hand the management of Belleayre Mountain Ski Center over from the Department of Environmental Conservation (DEC) to the Olympic Regional Development Authority (ORDA).

Now a battle is brewing over whether the new management would be a good idea.

Some like the prospect of getting Belleayre out of the hands of the DEC and under the management of the entity that operates Lake Placid and the Whiteface Mountain and Gore Mountain ski areas.

The Coalition to Save Belleayre is on board -- its chair, Joe Kelly, issued a press release last week saying that “most of us feel pretty comfortable that ORDA is probably the best option for Belleayre.”

The Times Herald-Record editorial board is enthusiastic as well. Yesterday, the paper ran an editorial in support of the plan, writing that it “makes a lot of sense for a lot of reasons.”

But not everyone is pleased. The Catskill Heritage Alliance, long a foe of the controversial Belleayre Resort/Crossroads Ventures LLC development that has been proposed for Belleayre Mountain’s slopes, has emerged as the biggest critic of the plan.

Having an Adirondacks-based public authority control Belleayre wasn’t the first choice of the recently-formed Belleayre Regional Advocacy Group (BRAG) either. This spring, BRAG, with the help of the Catskill Watershed Corporation, issued a report urging the state to give the Catskills its own Catskills-only ski authority.

Alan White, the executive director of the Catskills Center for Conservation and Development who was one of the members of the BRAG committee, said in an interview on Roxbury's WIOX 91.3 FM radio station last week that his preference would be for “a standalone Catskills economic development authority.”

But, he added, “given the political climate, [that idea] doesn’t seem to be movable.”

That’s because the plan to move Belleayre to ORDA is looking like a done deal.

The current head of the DEC, Joseph Martens, was the chair of ORDA’s board until his appointment at the DEC this winter, a connection that predisposes him towards handing off Belleayre to ORDA, according to a quote from ORDA Vice Chairman Serge Lussi in the Adirondack Daily Enterprise last week.

Lussi himself is gung-ho about the idea, telling the Enterprise that “he would not be surprised if ORDA was running Belleayre next winter."

And New York State Senator John Bonacic told WAMC last week that he is expecting legislation to cement the deal by the end of the year.

So what’s best for Belleayre? That’s very much up for debate.

An authority of one’s own

The question of what to do about Belleayre has been the subject of quiet conversations among regional leaders all year.

Last winter, the DEC laid off 48 full-time Belleayre employees and hired them back as lower-paid seasonal workers, prompting a tide of angry protests and calls for a change in management.

Soon afterwards, a group of local Belleayre supporters known as the Belleayre Regional Advocacy Group (BRAG) began meeting regularly to discuss how to keep Belleayre running in the future. According to the Catskill Mountain News, BRAG members included Catskill Center for Conservation and Development executive director Alan White, MARK Project director Peg Ellsworth, Shandaken Town Supervisor Rob Stanley, Middletown Town Supervisor Len Utter, and March Gallagher, a representative of the Ulster County Development Corporation.

The Catskills Watershed Corporation, while not a formal part of BRAG, helped coordinate BRAG’s research. A few weeks ago, BRAG recorded a set of recommendations for the future of Belleayre in a short report, which you can read below.

The BRAG report reasons that to survive, Belleayre must be spiffed up with a $5 million investment and either be operated by a private company or be turned over to a public authority like ORDA. Otherwise, the report states, Belleayre is likely to close.

“We are confident [that] Belleayre can make money on an on going basis provided it can operate with the nimbleness of a private enterprise,” the report states. “It will also require an investment of approximately $5 million to increase capacity to 225,000 ski visits per year. The choice is actually quite simple. Keep operating at loss until someone finally pulls the plug or determine how to make a public private partnership work.”

That grim assessment for Belleayre might be a bit strong. Michael Bopp, a spokesman for the DEC, told the Watershed Post last week that Belleayre doesn’t always operate at a loss.

“We have an operating history that shows its average losses in a certain range of a few hundred thousand dollars a year,” Bopp said, adding that in some years, “all revenues have actually exceeded costs.”

Still, the BRAG report states that Belleayre’s finances are dire enough to require turning it over to management that has the “nimbleness” of a private company.

According to BRAG, there are two ways of doing this. The first is to have the state issue a permit to a private facility to run the ski center in exchange for an annual fee. This approach has problems, the report explains, because “Article 14 of the State Constitution … prohibits the sale or leasing of State property in the Catskill Forest Preserve.” Giving a private company a permit to operate Belleayre would require making changes to the law and could open the door to lawsuits from environmental groups, BRAG observes.

Therefore, the BRAG report concludes, the best option for Belleayre seems to be the second option: putting it under the purview of a public authority, which is essentially a state-controlled entity that operates like a private corporation.

ORDA itself might not be the best fit, the report states, both because ORDA is not financially self-sufficient and because Belleayre is not an Olympic-level facility.

“Significant annual state and local town appropriations are required to keep the facilities in what could be referred to as "Olympic Ready" condition,” the report states. “Belleayre is a different scenario.”

Therefore, the report concludes, it would be best if the Catskills had its own separate authority to run Belleayre:

An enhancement to the Public Authority model could be the inclusion of DEC operated campsites with-in the Catskill Park to create a Catskill Park Recreation Authority. “This authority would operate all DEC run recreation facilities within the Catskill Park much as ORDA operates the Olympic Training facilities.

At the end of its report, BRAG suggests that a sustainable Belleayre must pay its workers much less than it did in 2010.

BRAG's suggested operating budget for Belleayre states that Belleayre paid its employees about $4 million in salaries and $1 million in benefits in 2010. BRAG’s suggested budget for Belleayre allocates only $2.4 million for salaries and $0.6 million for benefits to employees.

“It’s critical to have the data”

The Catskill Heritage Alliance (CHA) is critical of the BRAG committee’s recommendations, so much so that it hired a Washington, D.C. consultant to analyze them and produce a competing report, which was released last month. That report, “Review of a Proposal to Transfer New York State’s Belleayre Mountain Ski Center to a Public Authority,” concludes that Belleayre is better off with the DEC than it is with a public authority. (You can read that report in full below.)

In a press release issued last week summarizing its report, the CHA described two main concerns about a public authority running Belleayre. The first is that ORDA, which operates at a loss itself, would not help Belleayre turn a profit. The second is that Crossroads Ventures LLC, the developer of the Belleayre Resort, would improperly benefit from the relationship.

The CHA’s report, written by DC consultant Michael Siegel, argues that Belleayre’s financial state is better than the BRAG report makes it seem. Thanks to last year's staffing cuts, Siegel writes, Belleayre closed 2010 in a better financial position than it has in years.

“Going forward, [Belleayre's] staffing costs can be expected to decline due to recently-announced cutbacks by DEC that would return the ski center to the staffing profile it had about three years ago,” Siegel writes in the report.

The CHA report also argues that Belleayre’s visitor numbers are steady and that revenue can be boosted by upping ticket prices a modest amount and by slashing the number of free tickets the Ski Center gives away:

[T]he DEC could achieve break-even by increasing the ski center’s average revenue per skier by between about $4.40 to $6.00. This could be achieved through a combination of lift ticket, concession, facility rental and other fees, and a reduction in the number of free tickets.

The CHA report raises other concerns about putting Belleayre in the hands of a public authority. A beefed-up Belleayre could poach skiers from other local ski slopes such as the small Plattekill or the large Hunter and Windham Mountains, Siegel states.

But Siegel’s biggest fear seems to be that developer Crossroads Ventures and its Belleayre Resort would have much to gain financially from a partnership with a public authority. From the report:

Perhaps most significantly, partnering with a State-chartered authority would provide Crossroads/Belleayre resort the potential means to off-load to the authority (and ultimately to the State) some of the burden and associated risk of financing tens of millions of dollars for its on- and off-site sewer, water, storm water, drainage, interior roads, and related costs.

Last Thursday, DEC spokesman Michael Bopp told the Watershed Post that concerns about Crossroads benefiting from ORDA’s operation of Belleayre were premature.

“What we would be talking about is some kind of a management agreement,” Bopp said. “Any development rights would have to be defined and addressed in an memorandum of understanding or contract of some kind. It’s premature to speculate on what those scenarios would be.”

Roger Wall, the CHA’s chairman, told the Watershed Post last week that his group’s main concern is that the state will rush into an arrangement with ORDA without looking at all the numbers.

“I think that for years, people have looked at Belleayre and said, ‘It’s losing money; we need to do something about it,’” Wall said. “I think that’s been partially fact, partially perception. The actual numbers have been very hard to get.”

“In these sorts of discussions going forward, it’s really critical to have the data,” he said.

Who will speak for the Catskills?

One thing everyone agrees on is that if ORDA takes over Belleayre, Catskills residents must have a say on ORDA’s board.

“One of the biggest issues I think we are all concerned about is … the issue of representation,” Alan White said last week. "ORDA’s board has 10 seats, with three commissioners and seven at-large people from the community. Right away, I start doing the math: We need at least four Catskills seats on this board, so that you have a chance of not getting voted out of existence.”

But any way you cut it, locals in the Catskills don’t have much control over the decision of what to do with Belleayre.

MARK Project director Peg Ellsworth, who also sat on the BRAG committee, said last week during the interview on WIOX that she and other local leaders don’t really know when or how the decision will be made.

“We wish we had the answer to that,” she said. “We were really encouraging our elected officials to figure out a unified approach that was consistent with something in the [state General] Assembly, something in the [state] Senate, and something consistent with the Governor’s administration. This is where the sausage grinding begins.”

Belleayre Regional Advocacy Group report

CHA Report on ORDA and Belleayre