SAGE report: ORDA could run Belleayre Ski Center

RAY BROOK — A report from the state suggests the Olympic Regional Development Authority could be suited to run Belleayre Ski Center.

There is no final decision on restructuring, but apparent momentum has some groups concerned about what new management might foretell.

Located in the Catskills, the state Belleayre Ski Center is managed by the Department of Environmental Conservation.

According to state documents, the facility loses $4 million annually.

The Spending and Government Efficiency Commission (SAGE) is tasked by Gov. Andrew Cuomo to improve integration among state agencies to reduce cost through shared services — it issued the report that launched the review of Belleayre and its possible restructuring.

Bullet points in the new report, published Dec. 15, suggests “operation of Belleayre by the DEC restricts its flexibility and responsiveness to market needs” and, further, that “ORDA has the expertise to manage ski centers for the state, with the expectation that Belleayre could become self-sustaining over time.”

MOTIVE QUESTIONED

ORDA tabled discussion of Belleayre operations at a board meeting this fall, focusing instead on recovery from Tropical Storm Irene and the remnants of Tropical Storm Lee.

Belleayre was used as a shelter for Catskill residents after major flooding hit the area in September.

The Catskill Heritage Alliance, formed of environmental groups and regional preservationists, countered the state’s review with its own report, based on a study completed in June.

“The SAGE presentation asserts DEC management ‘restricts (Belleayre’s) flexibility and responsiveness to market needs,’ but we don’t agree,” Heritage Alliance Chairman Roger Wall said in a statement issued Monday.

“As a state-run ski area, Belleayre’s ‘market’ is the citizens who pay taxes (and buy day passes) to support a ski center that offers affordable skiing in the Forest Preserve, and DEC management has served it well. 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.”

UNDER REVIEW

Officials at ORDA are awaiting a final decision.

“SAGE is looking at this as an option,” ORDA spokesman Jon Lundin said. “Nothing has changed. Belleayre is still in the hands of the DEC.”

DEC spokeswoman Charsleissa King said, “Like all agencies that are part of SAGE Commission recommendations, DEC is reviewing the proposal.”

Chief among Heritage Alliance concerns is planned private development beside state-owned land.

Property adjoining Belleayre is an approved site for luxury-resort construction proposed by Crossroads Ventures.

“In 2007, as an enticement to concentrate the development on the west side of Belleayre, the state proposed a plan that would connect the public ski center to the resort to allow ski-in, ski-out lodging,” Wall said.

“At the time, this proposal had a price tag of upwards of $45 million. The expansion would primarily benefit the guests of the resort, not the taxpayers who would foot the bill.”

BUSINESS MODEL

DEC environmental review of Belleayre Resort is under way, and the process, Wall said, includes evaluation of the state ski center’s Unit Management Plan.

“If ORDA is going to take over Belleayre, this change and ORDA’s plans for Belleayre need to be scrutinized under this review. Under no circumstances should public money be spent on Ski Center expansions that primarily benefit a speculative real estate project.”

The study conducted by the Heritage Alliance suggests a public “authority” structure at Belleayre would not turn the financial picture around.

“Although the authority (business model) is based on a 32 percent increase in skier visits, (the proposal) shows the ski center’s payroll-related costs would fall by 43 percent, its associated maintenance and operation costs (e.g. utilities, repairs, supplies and equipment, patrol, grooming, gasoline, snow-making) would increase by less than 5 percent, and its insurance cost would be a small fraction of the reported industry standard,” the report countered.

The Heritage Alliance claims staking Belleayre in a public-private partnership proposes “serious issues for its future and that of the residents, businesses, and property owners in the Route 28 corridor and the Catskills region.”

The Spending and Government Efficiency Commission report does not discuss particulars of any public-private partnership in connection with moving Belleayre operations to ORDA.

Email Kim Smith Dedam at: kdedam@pressrepublican.com

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