Gov. Andrew Cuomo visited the North Country for the Adirondack Challenge March 9.
Under a cloudless blue sky on the edge of Lake Clear in Franklin County, Gov. Andrew Cuomo studied the horizon and prepared for a ride.
“I’m here to have fun,” he said. “We’ll get serious later when we talk about how to promote tourism and provide economic development and jobs. We’re going to put the two together — the story of Adirondack tourism is a story that hasn’t yet been told.”
Cuomo was in this small hamlet in the town of Lake Clear — and later, in the village of Lake Placid — for the 2014 Adirondack Winter Challenge, a daylong event designed to highlight winter tourism in Upstate New York where an estimated 400 elected officials and winter enthusiasts from across the state gathered on Sunday, March 9 to participate in wintertime sports, including bobsledding, toboggan rides, curling, speed-skating and of course, snowmobiling.
New York State Snowmobile Association President Jim Elmore said snowmobiling generated $868 million in revenue for the state last year — “and that was a slow year,” he said.
“When the chief executive officer of the state recognizes your sport, it’s a huge honor,” he said.
Elmore said he’s impressed that Cuomo has taken such a hands-on interest in the sport and how snowmobiling clubs operate.
Under weather conditions that all agreed were ideal for riding — a thin layer of snow paired with temperatures just above freezing — the governor made his way through a gauntlet of county lawmakers, including Hamilton County board chairman William Farber, Onondaga County Chief Executive Joanne Mahoney and Essex Board of Supervisors Chairman Randy Douglas, who said he was extremely happy that the governor sees the North Country in a fresh, new perspective.
“It’s like free advertising and you can’t put a dollar on that,” said Douglas, donned in riding gear, as he prepared to hop on a sled and navigate the Kushaqua Trail back toward Lake Placid.
Prior to climbing on board the second in a long line of awaiting snowmobiles manned by club representatives from across the region, Cuomo appeared to take a deep interest in the mechanics of the machine, spending several minutes examining the controls and other features with a fellow rider before taking off in a puff of white powder.
As Cuomo sped off in the convoy, local lawmakers faced off in the much-touted intra-county race down the Mt. Van Hoevenberg bobsled run.
Members of the press were not there, but Essex County officials, including District Attorney Kristy Sprague, Keene Supervisor Bill Ferebee, Essex County Sheriff Richard Cutting and Wilmington Supervisor Randy Preston, reportedly navigated the track like champs.
“I was afraid I was going to cry like a baby,” said Sprague, “but I had a really great time.”
“I skied this morning and felt pretty good,” said Preston, “so I was prepared.”
Representatives from the Olympic Regional Development Agency (ORDA), the state agency that manages the Olympic facilities in the towns of Wilmington and North Elba, took reporters on a 60-mile-per-hour thrill ride down the bobsled track with state Assemblyman Charles Lavine (13th District) while Olympians, including US skeleton bronze medalist Kyle Tress, looked on below and mingled with the public.
“Absolutely incredible,” said Lavine, who represents communities in Nassau County.
Lavine said he looks forward to telling his constituents more about the North Country and appeared downright gleeful as he took a stroll with this reporter down Lake Placid’s main drag.
“I’m going to tell everyone about this,” he said. “What a great area.”
Assemblyman J. Gary Pretlow (89th, Mount Vernon) said his experience was “enlightening” and asked what he estimated was 10 percent of the state assembly gathered in the town to take an informal pledge to tell at least 10 people they knew about the North Country.
“Convince them to come up,” he later told lawmakers in a speech. “It’s a beautiful country up here and I’m going to convince [my constituents] that it’s completely plausible to jump in the car and make the drive up — I will be back.”
Assemblyman Andrew Raia (9th District, Long Island) commended the governor for crossing party lines in protecting the state’s tourism assets.
“These facilities are New York’s greatest treasures — we need to promote tourism and ensure funding for athletes and their training. I’ve already started calling the Adirondacks ‘the Hamptons North,’” Raia said.
Asked if he planned on relaying his North Country experiences back to his constituents, he held up his cellphone and grinned: “I’ve already put it on Facebook.”
Local officials were similarly effusive.
“It’s all just wonderful,” said Assemblyman Dan Stec, who represents the 114th District which includes Essex and Warren counties. “As a legislator, it’s nice to bring together people from other parts of the state to see what we have to offer — you can’t come up and not fall in love with the place.”
Stec said he went bobsledding for the first time and loved it.
“It was a total adrenaline rush,” he said.
Tupper Lake Mayor Paul Maroun said he had fun curling with state Sen. Betty Little.
“It’s a really good workout,” he said, explaining that pushing the 40-pound stone actually acts to melt the ice, something he didn’t know before.
“He’s made one very Adirondack mayor very happy,” said Saranac Lake Mayor Clyde Rabideau, echoing the chorus line of praise.
“It’s a wonderful opportunity for local legislators to see where their money is going and what we have here,” said North Elba Supervisor Roby Politi, noting the Olympic facilities.
“The proof is in the figures,” said Regional Office of Sustainable Tourism (ROOST) CEO Jim McKenna, citing Essex County’s sales tax growth rate, which grew 8.8 percent last year, the largest percent increase in the state.
“It’s good for the economy and good for the environment,” said Adirondack Council Executive Director William Janeway, who applauded the governor for his efforts to manage the two entwined strands that constitute politics in the North Country.
ORDA Chairman Pat Barrett said he was “delighted” the governor had brought so many opportunities to expose ORDA and various venues.
“The more exposure, the better. It’s a great day — what an area we live in,” he said.
Introducing Cuomo as “our Number One tourist” at a late-afternoon banquet at the Lake Placid Olympic Center, Little, who represents most of the North Country, commended the chief executive, saying that by merely coming to the region, he has done “so much” to promote the North Country.
“I can’t tell you how much you’ve helped by just proposing simple ideas to bring more visitors to the Adirondacks,” she said.
Speaking to an energized crowd, Cuomo recalled bonding with his younger brother Chris in the North Country in creating “beautiful family memories.”
“I love coming to the North Country,” he said. “Whenever I can steal a few minutes, I come up.”
He cited a recent trip to Saranac Lake to “clear my head” during the ongoing state budget negotiations, recalling a humorous encounter with Rabideau that later led to members of the press snapping photos outside a local gas station.
Cuomo said there’s great energy spreading across the region when it comes to economic growth and commended the North Country Regional Development Council for successfully applying for more state grants than any other region in the state.
“Upstate New York wasn’t served very well for many years,” he said. “We’re just bringing a focus to what the state should have been doing a long time ago — this is purely a question of exposure.”
“If you show it to them, they will come,” he said, citing tourism as the state’s fifth-largest industry.
Cuomo said the state allotted $60 million in advertising to promote New York in 2013, a decision that resulted in 8.8 million more visitors from the previous year, an increase of 4.2 percent — that’s double the national average for growth, he said.
“New York City is just a part of New York, but there’s so much more to offer. And once people come and experience the North Country, they will come back and back and back,” he said to deafening applause.
“You’ve been enjoying yourselves up here for far too long,” he said. “Now it’s time to share.”
In his speech, the governor also plugged a new initiative called the “I Ski NY Bus” to bring visitors to Upstate ski areas from New York City and Toronto.
Currently, according to press materials provided by the governor’s office, only two mountains, Hunter and Windham, are consistently serviced through bus transportation out of New York City.
Both of those have established relationships with New York City tour operators to bring busloads of skiers and snowboarders Upstate on trips.
An expanded bus service, according to the materials, will help the state’s ski areas be more competitive by making it easier and more affordable for New Yorkers and visitors to travel.
Under this new plan, the state will provide bus service to 13 different mountains from New York City. When the established New York City tour operators are not going to Hunter or Windham, the “I Ski NY Bus” will make the trip.
The plan also includes a secondary market from Toronto to expose Western New York ski areas to the same transportation opportunities.
After the governor’s speech, ORDA CEO Ted Blazer handed awards dashed with good-natured jesting.
Awards were split into two categories, those for amateur competitors and the other for the elected officials who opted to participate.
Fastest Downhill Plunge went to Assemblywoman Michelle Schimel (16th, Nassau); Pretlow, the Cool Runnings Award; Fastest Continuous Lefthand Turns Award went to Assemblywoman Donna Lupardo (123th, Binghamton).
Little snared the Least Athletic Accomplishment; Stec received the Best Use of Gravity Award; Rabideau won the honorary Adirondack Challenge Award and the governor himself won the Snowmobile Award.
ROOST’s own Kim Reilly took top honors in curling.
“We applaud the governor’s tremendous efforts to promote the Adirondacks as a destination,” she said. “What a terrific day of winter activities with my team of regional tourism colleagues. It was great to do so well on my very first time curling — I really thought my best event would be the toboggan!”
Despite the festive air, members of the GEA Teachers Union sought to draw attention to the Common Core, chanting slogans and enlisting children holding signs outside of the Lake Placid Olympic Center as attendees streamed in from Albany.