DEC’s Belleayre management skills questioned

Two of the three state-owned ski areas in eastern New York are run by the Olympic Regional Developme

Two of the three state-owned ski areas in eastern New York are run by the Olympic Regional Development Authority.

A new report from a state efficiency commission is suggesting ORDA also operate the third, Belleayre Mountain Ski Center in the Catskills.

Belleayre is currently run by the state Department of Environmental Conservation, which lost about $1.6 million on it last year and has sustained losses there in each of the last five years, according to the Spending and Government Efficiency Commission.

The SAGE Commission, established earlier this year by Gov. Andrew Cuomo, last week including changing Belleayre’s operator among “potential mergers” worth further consideration.

“Operation of Belleayre by the DEC restricts its flexibility and responsiveness to market needs,” the commission said in a report. “ORDA has the expertise to manage ski centers for the state, with the expectation that Belleayre could become self-sustaining over time.”

ORDA, based in Lake Placid, operates Whiteface Mountain in Wilmington and the Gore Mountain ski area in North Creek. It was created to manage the facilities built for the 1980 Winter Olympics in Lake Placid and as an authority has the power to borrow money and make management moves with more flexibility than a state agency.

Belleayre, located off Route 28 in Highmount in western Ulster County, was built in the early 1950s after state voters approved a constitutional amendment allowing it to be developed on state-owned forest preserve land.

The idea of ORDA taking over at Belleayre has been discussed in the last year, with no decisions reached. Representatives of DEC and ORDA said only that the SAGE Commission recommendation would be taken under consideration. An actual transfer of Belleayre’s management would require approval from the state Legislature and negotiations over the terms.

State Sen. John J. Bonacic, R-Middletown, who represents that area, said he would support the change if there are assurances the Catskills will get representation on ORDA’s board and a say in the ski area’s operations.

“Belleayre is the economic engine of the Route 28 corridor for tourism purposes,” he said.

The Belleayre Regional Advocacy Group, which includes political and business leaders from Ulster and Delaware counties, says an authority might do a better job running the ski area. The group was formed a year ago, after DEC cut 48 full-time jobs at Belleayre to save money.

“DEC is predominantly a regulatory agency that has been assigned management of state parks and a ski center within the Catskill Forest Preserve. The nature of the ski business requires a different mindset and nimbleness than a state agency can’t hope to obtain. Belleayre needs a new structure,” the advocacy group said in a report.

But a local environmental group, the Catskill Heritage Alliance of Pine Hill, issued a statement questioning the proposed change. The group fears ORDA would be free to enter a public-private partnership with Crossroads Ventures of Mt. Tremper, the private developer behind the controversial Belleayre Resort at Catskill Park.

“We fear that switching to ORDA management may be less about efficiency and more of a gambit to channel public money and bonding authority to enable construction of the Belleayre Resort, which [the alliance] opposes as environmentally and economically destructive,” the group said in a statement.

The private resort, first proposed a decade ago, would be a luxury complex built on private land next to the state ski center and could include trail connections between the two.

“Under no circumstances should public money be spent on ski center expansions that primarily benefit a speculative real estate project,” alliance Chairman Roger Wall asserted.

Crossroads Ventures says its project, which would include two hotels, condominiums and an 18-hole golf course, would create nearly 500 permanent jobs in the economically distressed central Catskills and has been designed in an environmentally sensitive way.

Categories: Schenectady County

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