Beayre Ski Center in Highmount opened its spanking-new gondola lift on December 30 with hopes that the new amenity will be a shot in the arm for the state-run ski resort and for the Town of Shandaken economy, which typically flags in the winter months. Assemblyman Kevin Cahill urged skiers to try out the new gondola, while criticizing Governor Andrew Cuomo for taking all the credit for the installation, although the funding did not appear to come through until Cahill and other local politicians made a push for it last winter.
On a snowy Monday, the day the cold spell broke, I rode the gondola, named “Catskill Thunder,” to the top of the mountain. Since the weather got in the way, I can’t report on the spectacular view, which will be essential to the lift as an attraction in other seasons, but I can describe the ride.
If I remember correctly from the skiing days of my youth, weekdays the lift lines are always pretty short, as they were on Monday. Belleayre employee Alex Sines said even on Sunday, when the resort logged 2000 visitors, the gondola lines were practically non-existent because each cabin carries up to eight people and the ascent takes only seven minutes, making for a quick turnover of riders. The lift opened in the midst of a week of single-digit temperatures, discouraging all but the hardiest skiers, but the three-day MLK weekend is expected to draw 3000 to 4000 customers per day.
Right outside the lower lodge is the lift station, where cabins complete their descent and then circle slowly so passengers can get on. A staff member scanned my special one-time lift ticket, and I stepped alone into a cabin as a group of five, the only other people on line, entered the car behind me. The doors closed as my cabin left the circle and headed for the slope. Once I was in the air, the ride was weirdly quiet, except for a barely audible hum and slight jolt whenever the car crossed the arm of a support tower. Despite the temperature in the low 20s and a stiff wind, I was comfortable in the completely enclosed cabin. The downhill window, designed to give an expansive view, was frosted over, but I was able to peek out the sides at treetops and ski trails as I climbed ever more steeply upward.
At the top, the cabin slowed and entered another circle. The doors opened on their own, and I stepped out. Plans call for an observation deck to be built next to the upper end of the lift. I took a few pictures of the snowy view and hopped back on for the uneventful ride down. Someone had scraped away a swath of ice from the front window, so I did get a peek at the dramatic view along the swooping support cables.
In the lodge, Michael Olenski of Roxbury was enjoying a cup of soup. He commented, “For a day like today, this gondola is the best thing on earth. It’s dry inside and not windy. The access to the runs is very good, and you make good speed to the top. I’m impressed.”
His companion, Margaret, added, “Thank you, Belleayre, for building it.” While a skiing friend of mine complained about the need to remove skis between runs in order to ride the gondola, Margaret said staff had been helpful in loading equipment onto the car, which has slots on the doors to accommodate skis, poles, and snowboards. Since the ride starts right outside the lower lodge, for the first run of the day and the first run after lunch, skiers wait to put on their skis at the top.
Staff member Sean Wells said the gondola is changing the pattern of use on the mountain. “The lower slopes used to be just for beginners, and the upper slopes for people who already know how to ski. Now you can get to the top so fast, people are using the whole mountain.”
Ski instructor Doug Smith of Hensonville, also warming up at the lodge, said, “It’s much easier to get to the top than before. It used to take 25 minutes to get up there,” since the only lifts to the top were those starting from the upper lodge. “Now I can get a couple of runs in before I start teaching. It’s really opened up the mountain.”
Getting New York State to fund the gondola, like other improvements at Belleayre, has taken considerable effort, said Assemblyman Kevin Cahill. Five years ago, administration of the ski area was shifted from the New York State Department of Environmental Conservation (DEC) to the state’s Olympic Regional Development Authority (ORDA), which operates Gore and Whiteface Mountains in the Adirondacks. The transfer was made “reportedly because ORDA had a better handle on managing facilities and access to resources,” explained Cahill. “It became clear that there was no plan in place to assure a minimum level of capital financing for Belleayre. I made it my business to make it a condition for the takeover that ORDA would set aside $1 million per year for Belleayre.”
In 2015, the state established a Unit Management Plan (UMP) for the ski center, recommending modifications amounting to roughly $74 million. However, the funds were never appropriated by the legislature, until last year. In January 2017, the governor announced that his preliminary budget for the year included funding for upgrades at Gore and Whiteface, with no mention of Belleayre. Under pressure from Cahill, State Senator James Seward, Shandaken Supervisor Rob Stanley, the Shandaken town board, former Belleayre superintendent Tony Lanza, and others, Cuomo’s budget revision, released a month later, included $8 million for the high-speed gondola and related improvements. “When the governor announced the opening of the gondola,” said Cahill, “he neglected to mention he had not included the money in his initial budget and only did it after we called upon him to do so. We’re very grateful they’re spending money on Belleayre, but it’s wrong for the public to think it was one person’s decision, when in fact it was an effort of the whole community.”
What about the remaining $66 million recommended by the UMP? “We should keep spending money to stabilize this facility that supports the community, and to keep it modern,” said Cahill. “We’ve just made a significant step in that direction. One of Belleayre’s biggest capital programs was the gondola, and that objective was met quickly and efficiently. As Belleayre tries to get to the point of solvency, having an attraction that can serve other purposes is almost as important as the ski season. And it’s not just for folks who come in and spend money in our hotels and restaurants — it’s good for locals as well. We’ll make sure Belleayre gets its fair share and doesn’t get forgotten.”