“Mountains should enter into the imagination of the people that live in their shadows.”
— Roderick Peattie, early twentieth-century geographer
The mercury finally rose high enough last Friday that when the rain came down over Ulster County the dirty snow piled up along the sidewalk gutters melted away like rice paper.
For anyone watching for signs of the season passing into spring, the rainfall was godsend. By contrast ice-fishing enthusiasts, ski bums and those with malfunctioning freezers weren’t as keen to see the cold months go.
Nor was the public benefit non-profit corporation known as ORDA, (Olympic Regional Development Authority) which relies upon freezing temperatures for the health of their bottom line. For ORDA, snowflakes falling from the sky, rather than raindrops, might as well be green money.
Created in 1981 by the State of New York to operate, manage and maintain facilities originally built in and around the Upstate New York mountain village of Lake Placid for the 1980 Olympic Winter Games, ORDA is the only state-owned “ski area organization” in the United States.
Over the next four decades, the fledgling agency would go on to assume the operations of facilities at Whiteface Mountain, Mount Van Hoevenberg, Gore Mountain and Ulster County ski destination, Belleayre, all previously managed by the DEC (Department of Environmental Conservation), which is not a public benefit non-profit.
In short, conservation of New York’s natural resources is the DEC’s game, not exploitation, and that governmental department was ill-suited to compete for the al tourism dollars which well-oiled mountain operations can produce.
Because they are “for the public benefit,” state-sanctioned public authorities like ORDA can issue their own bonds to raise money for their own causes or even the causes of third parties unrelated, without voter approval, while bypassing limits on state debt. Meaning they can operate at a loss.
ORDA and Belleayre
In 1983, New York State was beset by fiscal woes. Governor Mario Cuomo considered shutting down Belleayre mountain entirely.
When word trickled out to the locals, furious protests, petitions, and a lobbying effort ensued. According to regional civic, business and elected leaders Belleayre was the major economic driver for the entire Route 28 corridor, a state highway along which many hamlets, Phoenicia being the largest. depend.
Recognizing the consequences to the region’s economic health if the mountain were to be mothballed, the Coalition to Save Belleayre was formed. A tireless advocate for the mountain named Joe Kelly became its face.
“The DEC has been saying no to virtually everything in this county for so long, and look at the result on the Route 28 corridor,” said Kelly back in 2011. “Closed businesses and places of worship, declining school enrollment, foreclosures, for-sale signs, and inhabitants moving elsewhere for better opportunities.”
It is notable that Kelly lumped in churches with businesses.
The coalition’s efforts paid off when management of Belleayre Mountain was transferred to ORDA in 2012.
Ten years later “It is, of course, an economic engine, if not the economic engine for that immediate region, “ says assemblyperson Kevin Cahill, another champion of the mountain. “The worst thing that can happen to a region is poverty. When people have no economic alternatives, they often start undertaking questionable environmental practices because they can’t afford to do the right thing. Real-property taxes paid by homes, lodging and business’ supported by skiers and others who visit Belleayre are likely a significant part of the local revenue that the surrounding towns receive.“
John Parete, longtime proprietor of the Boiceville Inn, a tavern on Route 28 at the edge of Boiceville, likens Belleayre to a family member. A recently retired county legislator, as well as a former board member of ORDA, he’s seen firsthand the economic boon which ORDA’s management of Belleayre has bestowed to local business.
“ORDA’s great,” he says. “They put their money where their mouth is. Belleayre has enough work for 80 full-time year-round employees, 120 full-time seasonal, 200 part-time seasonal. And that’s fantastic, only, don’t forget, you don’t make money at the top of the mountain. You make money at the bottom.”
Meaning a mountain ski center can operate at a loss, while surrounding restaurants, hotels, bars, gas stations, tchotchke shops and light-bulb salesmen reap benefits brought by an estimated 161,000 recreationally-minded visitors to and from the mountain every winter.
Recreation and jobs
According to assemblymember Cahill, state-owned facilities exist to provide two things, affordable public recreation to people who may not otherwise have the opportunity and an economic boost to surrounding rural regions “that otherwise wouldn’t have that much activity.”
Positive assertions both. While the truth of the latter has been demonstrated, the common perception of skiing as a recreational pastime for the wealthy persists. One needs only to look at the prices to wonder whether the state-owned facility is wandering away from its mission statement.
For a daytripping tourist looking for the downhill rush, the cost of a chair lift ticket on a Friday or Saturday is a breathtaking $90 per person. And this “mountain tax” is paid after all the necessary equipment had been foraged: the skis, the poles, the goggles and the winter clothing.
For the savvy would-be skier, local shops like Potter Brothers just west of Kingston have equipment rental deals cooked up. Season passes for Belleayre are available in various price tiers depending on age or military service.
While planning ahead for an entire season of use is definitely cost-effective, if the typical able-bodied adult wants access to all the mountains in ORDA’s management portfolio, the tab for a pass soars to over $1000. Which turns the phrase “affordable public recreation” into a joke.
Partisan of all things Belleayre, even Joe Kelly kvetched about the same issue a decade ago, calling the price of an all-mountain pass valid at any ski area in New York, known then as the SANY Gold pass, “too expensive for most people.” The price in 2012 was $1100.
So what is ORDA doing with that money?
Maintaining chairlifts and constructing fancy gondolas to whisk skiers and snowboarders up mountains is just workaday for the development authority, which specializes in the operation of more exotic facilities meant for Olympic competition.
Skeleton, luge and bobsled runs. An oval for speed skating. An ice rink. And two ski jumps 25 stories tall for those chronic risk-takers. All these things are offered up in Essex County.
ORDA announced the completion of plans this year of a 30-point biathlon shooting range and stadium, which it installed after tearing out a parking lot near the bottom of Mount Van Hoevenberg in Essex County.
The money picture
Whether the Olympic Authority plays favorites among its mountains is hard to know. Since the 2020-2021 season, revenue reports for the individual mountains are no longer included in ORDA’s annual reporting.
What information can be gleaned shows that ORDA, with all its managed mountain facilities is losing just above $17 million a year.
That’s where capital contributions come in. Appropriations directed to ORDA from New York State infuse $81.5 million to the authority’s revenue stream. With another million and change from unidentified state agencies, the net position of the public authority is in the black.
The agency was sitting on $207 million at the time of its last disclosure for the 2020–2021 season.
Political support required
Assemblymember Cahill has long been instrumental in keeping ORDA’s attention over the years, ensuring Belleayre wasn’t overlooked when it came time for funds to be distributed.
“Each year, since Belleayre was removed from the direct management of the Department of Environmental Conservation and placed in the Olympic Regional Development Authority, it took intervention from my office to assure that Belleayre received funding. Through budget language, I have been consistently able to earmark specific state dollars to Belleayre in the ORDA budget.”
The recent redrawing of the district lines all across the state finds assemblymember Cahill now outside the boundaries which contain Belleayre. The assemblymember representing Shandaken is now Republican Chris Tague, who will have to pull his weight to keep the funds coming to the Belleayre ski area.
As with everyone else who’s been up to the mountain itself, Belleayre continues to exert a hold on Cahill. “Just because the new district line will now stop at the edges of town, does not mean my advocacy for the mountain ends,” he said. “Instead, I will, as I have done in other communities previously redistricted out of the 103rd, forge a partnership with their new representative to assure that local voices are heard, local needs are addressed.”
One could start by bringing down the lift prices to ensure that the state-owned facilities at Belleayre live up to the promise to provide “affordable public recreation to people who may not otherwise have the opportunity” to enjoy them.
Belleayre is in the forever-wild Catskill Forest Preserve, an economic green engine midst all the trees.
The views and opinions expressed in our letters section are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of Hudson Valley One. You can submit a letter to the editor here.
Skiing plus guns. Not one medal. Scandal.
Why hasn’t Belleayre made a pitch for this noble Olympic winter sport?
Everyone in Ulster County knows by now about the influx of new residents up from New York City. Eager to buy up every property in sight and ravenous after two years of the pandemic for diversions reminiscent of what’s available in the Gommorah down the river.
In Brooklyn, for instance, they drink alcohol and throw spinning axes at giant dartboards while dressed like hipster lumberjacks. Hatchets and Hops and Bury the Hatchet Axe-Throwing both thrive in Greenpoint, with nary an axe murder yet. Stumpy’s Hatchet House in Industry City offers the same. It’s even caught on in Newburgh.
It seems counterintuitive with a fresh tourism base of materialistic, young tastemakers to exploit that ORDA (Olympic Regional Development Agency) would go out of its way to snub these newest arrivals by building a new 30-point biathlon shooting range, complete with stadium, two hours north of Albany at Van Hoevenberg Mountain.
Belleayre Mountain, by contrast, is just 45 minutes from the City of Kingston, ground zero for the new populations of Ulster County.
It’s hard to know where to place the blame, or if there’s even enough blame to go around.
Certainly the Ulster County Chamber of Commerce was caught napping. It doesn’t take much vision to imagine axe enthusiasts zipping around on skis, toting rifles around a snowy course. and getting loaded up on fourteen-dollar-a-glass cheap champagne.
The argument that ORDA has made for the choice of location is that it’s nearby the other Olympic facilities constructed for the Winter Olympics at Lake Placid in 1980. This explanation from an organization with Olympic in its name rings hollow, however, when one faces a hard truth.
No American winners
To our national shame, not a single American of any gender has ever medaled even a bronze in the Olympic biathlon, a sport in which skiing to exhaustion and then firing a .22 rifle at numerous targets represents the test of heroes.
Vermonter Susan Dunklee of Craftsbury seemed America’s best hope at this year’s Winter Olympics, which she had advertised would be her last. However, her highest placing was seventh overall within the relay version of the competition. Deedra Irwin was the breakout star, finishing seventh in the women’s 15-kilometer individual race, marking the best Olympic finish ever for U.S. biathlon.
Joanne Reid of Grand Junction, Colorado, the daughter of Olympic speed skater Beth Reid, ended up placing highest among her teammates but still came in four minutes 28 seconds behind the gold-medal winner Marte Olsbu Roeiseland of Norway in the ten-kilometer pursuit.
The weather conditions during the pursuit races were described as moderate snowfall, a stiff wind blowing across the shooting range, and bone-chilling temperatures.
For those unfamiliar with this modern version of this fine sport, which has its roots in Scandinavian tradition, the race is conducted over a predetermined distance along a snow-covered course.
Five targets set 50 meters away are presented at intervals to gauge the marksmanship of the tiring skier. The targets are not large, variously 4.5 inches or 1.8 inches around, depending on whether the Olympian is standing or laying prone on the snow.
Five bullets are rationed out, one for each target. The penalty for missing a target results in more skiing. As does running out of bullets. If one is particularly inept, missing targets, running out of bullets, etc. and another competitor laps the straggling Olympian, the poor athlete is dismissed from the competition entirely and DNF is marked in the results, which means Did Not Finish.
It’s said the heart rate hovers around 180 beats per minute pm with the effort of the cross-country style of skiing and when taking aim, because time is important, only those with steady hands will excel.
In a Finnish variation of the sport not recognized at the Olympics, competitors use full-bore rifles to shoot at targets shaped like moose two football fields away.
As it stands, with the results for the biathlon in the Beijing Olympics are now etched into the history books and there are now just four years to prepare for the next Winter Olympics in Milan, Italy.
Think of the possibilities
The audited financial statements of ORDA show a net position at the end of the year 2021 of $207,748,376. More than enough to sink into another highly atavistic patriotic endeavor, but this time at Belleayre.
It’s easy to fear Norway. They have us at a psychic disadvantage. Skis are clearly synonymous with their country, and they hold the majority of the golds in the sport.
A new biathlon course would recognize the economic possibilities unleashed along the Route 28 corridor. The adoption of a recreational firearm sport sends a clear message to the Norwegians.
The American Olympic team needs our support. We need a medal in this sport. Badly. Any medal.