Passion from, and the applause for the twin proposals of the state Department of Environmental Conservation’s $74 million expansion plans for Belleayre Mountain and Crossroads Venture’s long-pending plans for the $400 million Belleayre Resort at the Catskill Park seemed to dominate the May 29 seven hour public hearing at Belleayre Mountain’s Discovery Lodge. Pro-expansion and resort speakers, almost exclusively from Delaware County, kept making that case over and over again of a change in destiny for what started out as a much-hated development when first proposed by Big Indian resident Dean Gitter.
Even resort opponents noted the three-to-one numbers against them, and how audience reactions — including some boos and a host of pro-development t-shirts and signs up and down the entrance road into the ski center — had cased a number of their peers to scratch their names off the list of those waiting to speak.
But at evening’s end, a handful of speakers — plus one set of comments from the owners at Hunter Mountain in Greene County — seemed to counter all that had been said aloud and seemed to set in clear light the choices at hand for the state officials in whose hands a final decision on the fate of Belleayre’s big plans rests.
“I’ve been in the ski industry for 26 years and I’ve been involved in a lot of growth decisions; they always involved having to determine a return on investment,” said Chip Seamans, President and General Manager at Windham Mountain in Greene County, as one of the hearing’s final speakers. “In every situation I have seen or heard about, one’s growth decisions were based on matters of skier numbers and bet service facts. In no cases was there free money available for the expansion of a ski area. We think competition is part of what we do, and having four ski areas in the Catskills is great. However, we truly believe in a level playing field. We don’t believe in a state investment in Belleayre that has no plan for returns.”
Later, after he had to leave the hearings before giving his remarks, Hunter Mountain President Russ Coloton discussed the comments his company, the state’s biggest ski center, were planning to submit in the coming week.
“Where’s the demand for this project? You look at the industry demographics and the Northeast hasn’t had much overall growth in visitor demand for 20 years. Plus, our demographic’s aging,” he said. “Their reasoning for this whole thing [the build out and resort tie-in] is that they’re doing this because they can; their philosophy is, ‘If we build it they will come.’ But who are they? People ski in Vermont or the Poconos because they love to. If they need to rise from 160,000 to 320,000 skier visits a year the only place they’ll get them is from the other areas here in the Catskills.”