The Olympic Regional Development Authority has defended years of financial losses for their Adirondack facilities, citing major investments and a significant economic impact to the local economy.
LAKE PLACID — Counting fiscal losses annually in millions is an ongoing shift of improving and adding venues for the Olympic Regional Development Authority.
Infrastructure investments have successfully maintained winter sport facilities built in 1932 and in 1980.
But additions in the past five years are building into a year-round slate of attractions.
Recent reporting in the Times Union counted losses on ORDA’s books at near $19 million for each of the past three years.
But in a wider angle view, ORDA’s 2015-16 annual report suggests over $180 million have been invested in its venues in the last 35 years, funds drawing from resources beyond just ticket sales to include: “capital appropriations, grants, the Winter Sports Trust Fund and the Olympic Training Fund.”
Asked to respond to the operating losses, ORDA CEO and President Ted Blazer defended New York’s Olympic hub.
“Since its inception, ORDA has successfully hosted more than 300 major national and international events – including numerous world championships and world cups,” Blazer told the Sun.
“We are also responsible for infusing over $120,000,000 ($120 million) of economic impact to the communities we serve. We are proud of the fact that we have contributed to successfully maintaining Lake Placid’s status as a world class host of elite sporting competitions.”
Annually, he said, ORDA strives to be a primary economic catalyst to both the Adirondack and Catskill regions.
“And we are thankful for the Governor’s continued support and recognition of our efforts,” he said of the newly announced $20 million investment planned for the coming year.”
The losses since 2012 reflect, in part, the addition of Belleayre Ski Center along with near simultaneous addition of the $20 million Conference Center at Lake Placid. The conference center is building its revenue base from start-up, while improvements to both winter and summer recreation at Belleayre are under way.
Gov. Andrew Cuomo’s new $20 million investment for both summer and winter additions to ORDA facilities comes even as the proposed budget for the agency trims $275,000.
“The state has historically provided a subsidy for a portion of ORDA’s budget. The Executive Budget recommends $11.5 million for ORDA, a decrease of $275,000 from the FY 2016 budget,” Cuomo’s budget plan says.
“The decrease reflects operational efficiencies achieved by the Authority.”
Major budget actions in Cuomo’s proposed plan have to be approved by the state Assembly and Senate. But the figures include $7.5 million in new capital funding for energy efficiency and renovation projects.
“ORDA will also receive $2.5 million in New York Works infrastructure capital funding which will be sub-allocated from the Office of Parks, Recreation and Historic Preservation’s New York Works appropriation. ORDA will use these funds to perform a variety of capital improvement projects at the Authority’s facilities.”
The Times Union’s report did not spell out losses from the unseasonably warm winter season last year.
According to ORDA’s annual report, however, ski trips at Belleayre last season dropped from about 134,000 to 75,000.
An average 130 ski days (individual skier trips) with 130 inches of natural snow fell to 91 ski days with a total 38 inches of snow.
At Gore, the mild winter saw nearly the same drop in snow averages.
Local season’s pass holders held steady in providing $3.3 million in revenue versus $3.7 the year before.
But day trip ticket sales at Gore dropped by almost half — from $6.3 million in 2014-15 ski season to $3 million in 2015-16.
In their annual report, ORDA’s board of directors said flat out that at Whiteface: “This past winter proved to be the worst season on record.”
The mountain saw just 58 inches of snow, about half the annual average, plus 17 inches of rain.
Winter visits at Whiteface Mountain saw a loss during Christmas week alone last year of $700,000, according to ORDA’s annual report.
Ski ticket revenue at $9.5 million in 2014-15 dropped to $7.8 million in 2015-16, due to weather.
ORDA mountain managers have worked steadily in the past six years to add snowmaking equipment, updating older snow guns to more energy-efficient models, which the annual report says have allowed the resort to prepare for snow deficit.
What is likely a more important mitigation plan has worked to build year-round events and activities.
Whiteface Veteran’s Memorial Highway draws tens of thousands to the High Peak summit (fifth highest in New York) more than 5,000 feet above sea level. It is one of the few completely handicapped accessible summits in the country.
Opened in 1936, a $12 million investment from state agencies for both the roadway and for the antiquated elevator to the summit in 2014-15 allowed the first roadway improvements in nearly 50 years.
The scenic paved highway, its hand-hewn stone walls, unique amenities and stone castle were placed on the National Register of Historic Places in 2008.
The updates drew significant interest.
According to the annual report, “the highway logged the most visitors since 1999 while generating record revenue.”
Summer visits grew by about 13,000 to over 78,000 trips up the highway last year, important given the fact that the highway is only open about six months from Memorial Day through about Columbus Day.
The tourist attractions, blending winter and summer, as Blazer said, are central to the regional economy.
ORDA provides in excess of 1,000 jobs to small towns in the Adirondack and Catskill mountains.
A report from State Comptroller Thomas DiNapoli competed three years ago, as ORDA took on Belleayre and built its conference center, put the jobs number in fiscal year 2012 at “204 full-time and 1,106 part-time employees.
“The seasonal nature of certain ORDA operations drives a heavy reliance on part-time employees,” DiNapoli said.
About 86 percent of employees, most hired part-time for the winter, earn less than $25,000 per year.
The comptroller found that ORDA “has taken extraordinary steps to decrease personal service expense in the past several years, so much so that more cuts in that area would be unproductive, even detrimental to ORDA’s bottom line.”
In larger context, New York’s Olympic USA facilities remain among the Olympic sites still in operation unlike those in even Sochi and in Sarajavo, where winter sport venues have fallen to little or no use.
Sports administration here continues to build interest and add events, most recently college hockey championship games and a regional pond hockey event held on Mirror Lake.
“In addition, ORDA is responsible not only to the public, but to the aspiring athletes who yearn to represent our country nationally, internationally and at the Olympic Winter Games,” Blazer said.
“In truth, we have represented Lake Placid, our surrounding regions, this state and this country with dignity and honor.”
Three years ago, the state comptroller concluded that ORDA and its venues are an essential part of the North Country economy.
“In addition to operating and maintaining the various facilities under its control, (ORDA) hosts national and international sporting events, drawing competitors and spectators from around the country and throughout the world.
“ORDA also provides venues and services for meetings, conferences and special events, encourages participation in winter sports, and promotes tourism in the Adirondack region.
“These factors underscore the need to ensure that ORDA’s operations, along with its use of financial assistance from the State and other entities, are efficient and effective,” DiNapoli said.