CATSKILLS -- The state will be investing $8 million in a new high-speed gondola system and other improvements at the Belleayre Ski Resort -- an investment of state tax dollars that private ski operators said represents an unfair advantage for a competitor.
The investment at Belleayre was announced by Gov. Andrew Cuomo on Thursday, just weeks after he announced major new spending at the other two ski resorts operated by the Olympic Regional Development Authority, Gore and Whiteface mountains in the Adirondacks. Some critics had complained about seeing spending on the Adirondack areas and not at Belleayre, which ORDA took over from the state Department of Environmental Conservation in 2012.
Cuomo said the new spending will make Belleayre, located in Pine Hill, Ulster County, more of a tourist draw.
"Belleayre Mountain is one of the crown jewels of the Catskills and a major driver of the region's tourism economy," Cuomo said.
But two major private ski areas, Hunter Mountain and Windham Mountain, also operate in the central Catskills, and the general managers of both said the private ski areas are deeply concerned about taxpayer-subsidized competition, noting that they have to make a profit in order to be able to invest in their operations, whereas the state ski areas have any losses subsidized.
"Needless to say, this appears to be the state of New York trying to put private business out of business," said Russ Coloton, general manager of Hunter Mountain. He said the money the state is investing is in addition to taxpayers covering a $10 million loss ORDA sustained on its operations last year.
He noted that the number of skiers is limited. "The pie in the Catskills, meaning the skier base, is only so big, and this is going to take from us. ... All the privately owned areas in eastern part of state are extremely concerned."
"I think it makes it very difficult to compete when your competition is getting free money from the state," said Chip Seamans, president and general manager of Windham Mountain.
The planned improvements at Belleayre include construction of a high-speed eight-person gondola that will run from the Discovery Lodge on the lower mountain to the summit. The state said it will get skiers to the top of the mountain in six minutes. ORDA officials said it could also increase the potential for cross-country skiing at the top of the mountain, allow for scenic gondola rides like those at Gore and Whiteface, attract mountain bike riders and improve access to the summit for weddings and other group events.
About $1.5 million would be used to expand and improve the two lodges on the mountain.
Cuomo said tourism is a $1.83 billion industry in the Catskills, with 11 million people visiting the Catskills in 2015. Both figures are up since 2010.
Last month, Cuomo announced the state would invest $20 million at Whiteface Mountain in Wilmington and Gore Mountain in North Creek, the two ski areas historically operated by ORDA. The money was added to Cuomo's proposed 2017-2018 budget proposal on Thursday as one of the 30-day amendments.
The work at Whiteface would include expansions to the base lodges and construction of a long zip line and a mountain coaster, which would allow a toboggan-type experience on a track in non-winter months. At Gore, the base lodge would be expanded, a warmer hut and observation area built at the unloading point on the summit.
In January, state officials said such improvements are needed to keep Whiteface and Gore competitive with private destination ski resorts like Killington, in Vermont. There are smaller ski areas in the Adirondacks, but the two state-owned ski areas are by far the largest in the Adirondack Park.