Unkind cuts: As Belleayre suffers, so does Shandaken economy

Attendance at Belleayre Ski Center has plummeted this winter, partly due to the unseasonably warm weather, but Shandaken supervisor Rob Stanley is among those officials who also blame the New York State Department of Environmental Conservation (DEC), which runs the state-owned ski area. The Shandaken town board passed a resolution on January 12, urging DEC to support the local economy by restoring promotional packages, increasing funding for snow-making, and improving communication with local governments.

Meanwhile, Governor Andrew Cuomo’s 2012 budget calls for transferring management of Belleayre from DEC to the Olympic Regional Development Authority (ORDA), which runs the Gore and Whiteface ski areas in the Adirondacks.

“The weather’s bad enough to begin with,” said Stanley. “They’ve cut discount ticket packages with local restaurants and lodging, and they used to have programs where if you bought a ski ticket for a family, kids stay free at local lodging.” Snow-making has also been drastically reduced.

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“Especially after the floods, businesses here really need a boost,” observed Stanley, who said Labor Day weekend was a major loss, coming just a week after Hurricane Irene, and Columbus Day weekend was not much better.

Over Martin Luther King Day weekend, usually the biggest of the season, the Pine Hill Arms reported a 50 percent drop in lodging and restaurant business over last year. “This is the worst it’s ever been,” said proprietor Robert Konefal, “and I’ve been in business 30 years. The governor promised he was going to do all he could for our area after the flood, and now they’re hurting us.”

“The cuts are part of a trend,” states Stanley. “They’ve been cutting Belleayre’s funding for past two years — unfairly, in our eyes. The state is not understanding how much of an economic driver Belleayre is for our area.”

Stanley was among the officials and residents who rallied at Belleayre last April to protest cuts to funding for the ski area, where scenic chairlift rides, summer concerts organized by Belleayre Conservatory, and swimming at nearby state-owned Pine Hill Lake are among the activities that keep it operating year-round. During and after Hurricane Irene, the lodges were used as an emergency shelter for residents displaced by flooding and as lodging for National Guard troops who came in to help with clean-up.

Also at the April rally was Joe Kelly, chairman of the Coalition to Save Belleayre, a regional advocacy group organized in 1984 when the state was threatening to close the ski center. Demonstrators last spring talked with newly installed DEC head Joe Martens, who assured them that programs would not be cut, communication would be improved, and plans for the winter would be established well in advance of the start of the season.

“We told him that when we didn’t have pricing on season tickets till November, or when they make big announcements in October that they’re laying off 45 people, these things affect skiers when they’re making plans — they’re less inclined to come to the area,” explained Kelly. “We left encouraged, he being a ski person and coming from the ORDA operation — he had been been chairman.”

However, DEC failed to set ticket prices in a timely fashion this year, advertising was cut, and the elimination of discounts took local businesses by surprise. Kelly suspects the discounts were slashed in response to lobbying from nearby ski areas Hunter and Windham, which have long complained that government funding of Belleayre gives it an unfair competitive advantage.

DEC spokesperson Emily DeSantis said the discounts were eliminated as a result of “thoroughly reviewing the distribution and use of tickets and ticket vouchers at Belleayre Mountain.” Due to the weather challenges this yea r, they have recently reduced the ticket prices on Customer Appreciation Days held on non-holiday Wednesdays and Fridays.

She said this reduction came about through consultation with local officials and businesses, insisting “DEC has been and will continue to be responsive to [their] concerns.”

 

Hand off to ORDA?

The prospect of handing over Belleayre to ORDA is controversial. Some observers fear Belleayre will get the short end of the stick, with more funding going with Gore and Whiteface. Others worry ORDA will cater to the proposed luxury resort that Crossroads Ventures has been seeking to build on the side of Belleayre Mountain.

“I think Belleayre needs somebody new,” said Kelly. “DEC has been operating it in a poor manner the last few years. We had 175,000 ski visits four years ago. Last year attendance was down because of actions they’ve taken. We need someone who’s in the ski business. I think eventually we will be in ORDA. What we want is to make sure we have a voice in what happens, make sure things done at Belleayre are continued, the lake and the conservatory, and fair treatment of employees as well. They did an incredible job during the floods, and they deserve a fair shake.”

The governor’s executive budget proposes to transfer responsibility for Belleayre from DEC to ORDA “to foster more efficient operations,” stating that the ensuing financial savings will be necessary to implementation of the budget.

Assemblyman Kevin Cahill expressed reservations about the transfer, stating, “The issue at Belleayre is funding, not administration. Left to its own operationally, the Ski Center has been and can be profitable. Management efficiencies have long been the practice at the facility. Putting it in an under-funded regional authority with little or no connection to the Catskills does not put the needed capital resources into the system.”

He suggested going “back to the drawing board” to generate an unspecified new plan for the viability of “the great asset of the Catskills, this center of commerce for the Route 28 corridor and tremendous recreational facility for so many New Yorkers.”

Belleayre superintendent Tony Lanza confirmed that attendance is down this year but declined to make any comment.++

 

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