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New York State to Build $30 Million Lodge at Money-Losing Ski Area
Is this the best way to support winter recreation in New York?
If a dumb rich kid collected ski areas, this is what it would look like
New York, like many states, owns ski areas. More than most: Belleayre, Gore, and Whiteface. Plus the Mt. Van Hoevenberg cross-country center and several other venues, all managed by the state’s Olympic Regional Development Authority (ORDA).
In the year ending March 31, 2021, these facilities drew 666,748 visits and operated at a loss of nearly $31 million. New York State solved this problem with an $81.5 million deposit into ORDA’s bank account, bringing the money-losing authority’s “net position” to $208 million.
These losses, and state deposits, are typical for the authority. And yet, there is no attempt to moderate spending: each year, Gore, Whiteface, and Belleayre receive substantial upgrades in lifts, lodges, snowmaking, and other facilities. That trend continues – earlier this month, Gore announced a $30 million lodge for its North Creek base area. It would be an impressive structure, according to The Sun:
The proposed new lodge, 18,300-square-feet in size, is to include a restaurant and tavern, ski and mountain biking equipment shops, ski patrol headquarters, and two levels of patios offering stunning views of Gore Mountain. The upper level of the restaurant is planned to have a looming front-facing wall built with glass panels that retract and open up the vast eatery for open-air dining, providing unobstructed views of the scenery.
It would also include some sort of super-futuristic zipline that would funnel riders up the mountain like bionic Tarzans. The announcement came a few days before Governor Kathy Hochul’s 2023 Executive Budget proposed an additional $105 million for ORDA.
The state’s other 46 ski areas, meanwhile, continue to fight it out for skiers in a state with a declining population and increasingly unpredictable weather. Many of these businesses are family-owned. Nearly all* pay taxes, meaning they are indirectly subsidizing their larger, more well-appointed competitors. Most struggle to maintain decades-old lift fleets and outmoded, energy-hungry snowmaking systems. Outside of the ORDA system, only five New York ski areas – Holiday Valley, Holimont, Bristol, Windham, and Vail-owned Hunter – have even a single high-speed detachable chairlift, a four-decade-old technology.
Is this a problem? Cue Free Market Bro to reframe economic survival as free-for-all bloodsport. This time, he may have a point: neighboring Vermont is the epicenter of Northeast skiing, and not only does the state not own a single ski area, but it’s host to a tangle of environmental laws that suffocate any process more involved than hanging a new set of drapes. Yet, Vermont skiing thrives. Would New York’s ski areas be better off if the state simply leased its ski areas out to a private operator and collected an annual fee, as New Hampshire has done with Vail-managed Mount Sunapee?
Perhaps. The state would find no shortage of bidders. Whiteface and Gore are the finest ski areas in New York State, so much larger and more interesting – from a skiing point of view – than anything else in the state that they present like time-travelers, tanks among Caesar’s elephants. They should be competing with Killington and Stratton, not Titus and West Mountain, two family-owned operations that are indirectly subsidizing them.
However, there are good arguments for state support of the ski industry, which tends to be concentrated in rural communities. ORDA’s legislative mandate, which is in part to “improve the physical fitness and recreational education of the people of New York and the United States,” is an admirable state directive in Fat America, with its endless northern winters and population riddled with chronic diet- and inactivity-based diseases. If tax dollars are going to subsidize roads, suburban sprawl, and other engines of the sedentary lifestyle, they ought to also invest in infrastructure that enables an active lifestyle as well.
But there are better ways to do this. If New York wants a strong, sustainable ski industry, here’s where it ought to start:
Spread the wealth: Want to invest $105 million of taxpayer funds in skiing? As a tax-paying citizen of New York and one that cares deeply about the future of the ski industry, be my guest. This is not that much money for a state with a $216.3 billion budget. But why concentrate this enormous cash dump on three already well-appointed ski areas and a handful of ancillary facilities?
“It seems the ski industry in New York State is in a pretty unique situation where the state is directly competing against about 50 privately owned, tax-paying companies,” said Nick Mir, general manager and part-owner of Snow Ridge in Turin, New York. “Is there a place for state-funded ski areas with Olympic hopes in this system? Sure. But maybe it’s time to start looking at the entire industry in this state and sharing even a small slice of that pie with the other ski areas that generate jobs, pay taxes, and drive tourism to nearly every region of New York.”
Align subsidies with larger goals: A few years back, New York devoted $5 million to energy-efficient snowmaking upgrades, with each ski area in the state qualifying for up to $300,000 in funding. This allowed places like Willard, a small ski area north of Albany, to install 30 modern snowguns. Such allocations are consistent with the state’s goals to increase energy efficiency statewide, and could easily be translated into programs to subsidize lift or groomer upgrades. Or how about a jobs program that aligned the state’s nearly nation-leading unemployment rate with nearly all operators’ desperate lack of employees? Or work with Ski Areas of New York (SANY) – one of the strongest state ski area associations in America – on a true statewide marketing campaign that promotes all skiing, instead of just ORDA skiing.
SANY President Scott Brandi said that his organization has requested an additional $10 million this year to fund additional energy-efficient snowmaking upgrades at the state’s ski areas, and has worked with the state’s economic development office on past marketing campaigns.
Hold the state-owned ski areas accountable: Independent audits show both consistent losses across the ORDA system each year, and consistent, increased investments from the state.
“From my own conversations with Gore and Whiteface personnel, I know that despite their departments continuously running in the deep red, their budgets keep increasing,” said Mir. “Not only is this a poor use of taxpayer money, but it puts ski areas like ours in a disadvantaged, unfair position.”
How is this allowed to continue? Vail posted a $127.9 million profit for fiscal 2021. What do you suppose would happen to the company if it operated at a loss year after year? All of the other ski areas in New York have to make money or die. And they find a way. There is no reason that the state can’t challenge ORDA to find efficiencies within its system and force the ski areas to at least break even from an operating point of view.
“The ski areas can make money, and they should,” said Brandi, who points out that most of ORDA’s operating shortfalls come from running highly specialized facilities such as their ski-jumping and ice-racing complexes. “A lot of ORDA’s current capital budget is in support of next year’s World University Games, and we expect those numbers to drop closer back to the $30 million range afterward.”
ORDA does not currently break out finances for individual ski areas, but perhaps it should. The agency did not respond to requests for comment.
Stop making family-owned businesses support their competitors: Small and local is cool. Craft beer, locally sourced ingredients, hand-knitted yak-fur scarves. This is what the hipsters want. It’s what America wants. And yet, New York is funneling tax dollars paid by small operators up to the largest ones in the state. This would be like taxing the corner bodega to support Amazon. Maybe, instead, the tax dollars paid by small ski areas could be pooled to re-invest in these small ski areas, or maybe we flip that around and a dollar from every ORDA lift ticket goes to support or promote the smaller operators. There are endless creative solutions here that would not require skiing to cannibalize itself for the sake of its biggest players.
“We understand their frustration,” said Brandi. “We do think that ORDA’s investments in its mountains have done a lot to inspire participation in winter sports in New York State. Whiteface, Gore, and Belleayre are SANY members, and ORDA’s CEO sits on our board, so they are very invested in the health of skiing in New York.”
OK fine, but back to the headline: does Gore need to invest $30 million in a new building? It already has a base lodge the size of a K-Mart at the bottom of its gondola. Even on the busiest holidays, I’ve been able to find a seat at lunch. A new facility at North Creek would certainly help spread out crowds, but such an investment would require a commitment by Gore to open that far-flung terrain – which used to be a separate ski area – far earlier in the season (it still isn’t open this year), and get the interpeak connections open promptly as well. So more money. Meanwhile, right down the road, Hickory is scrounging around in the car seats for nickels so it can raise the 60 grand it thinks it needs to get its antique Pomas spinning once again. Maybe the state, in all its largess, can find a way to do more good with $30 million skiing dollars than build a second baselodge at a ski area that has 14 lifts, 110 trails, and endless piles of cash coming in on the bucket brigade from Albany.
*New York is home to several small, municipally run surface-lift operations whose income is likely negligible or non-existent.
Let’s take this opportunity to ski out the snow
When Stevens Pass closed on April 18 last year, it was sitting on a 133-inch base. Snowfall for the season totaled 601 inches. By the following weekend, the only Vail-owned mountain still in operation was Breckenridge (government Covid shutdowns had shuttered Whistler prematurely). And while Vail partner Nakiska remained open, Ikon Passholders still had their choice of 20 ski areas to Epic’s two.
Closing resorts with plenty of snow still on the ground is one of Vail’s worst habits, and a huge selling point for Ikon Passes. For late-fall-to-May-or-beyond skiers, this helps to justify Ikon’s premium price.
Last week, Stevens Pass interim General Manager Tom Fortune told the Seattle Times that the ski area would extend operations “at least through the end of April, snow permitting.” While this was part of a damage-control campaign that included finally opening the resort’s backside and offering skiers $150 off a Stevens Pass-specific Epic Pass for next season, it’s an easy win for a ski area that has driven some of this year’s most caustic headlines.
Vail needs to do more of this. Ski areas can be for all kinds of things: two-day-a-year Dan and competitions and après and pond skims and rad kickers Brah and the Experience of a Lifetime, but they need to be for skiers too. The ones who only care about the up-and-down. These are the ones lining up at the bottom of the K1 in October to lap 500 feet of vert on the top of Killington and closing down the joint with a sundown kamikaze in June. It’s true that most skiers will never do these things, but the skiers that DO do these things are the ones that tell two-day-a-year Dan where to ski, and Dan you need to go to Killington Bro because the place just absolutely crushes. Yes because it’s huge and it has more lifts than Pennsylvania and skiing there is the closest a human being can come to understanding the experience of a floating tree in a logjam, but mostly because it’s a place defined by an audacious and nature-defying commitment to skiing 14 months per year. Where the up-and-down is everything. Go to Okemo? Why would you do that, Dan? Okemo closes in APRIL for God’s sake. That’s barely halfway through the ski season. It doesn’t matter that Dan will be skiing in January. His friend who skis 100 days a year will tell him to go to Killington and so he will.
I wonder if you can still check a trailmap?
After a year of fighting Freedom Bro over liftline mask requirements, I was unsurprised to see ski areas drop such mandates en masse for this ski season. Let the Chuckleheads get vaccinated or pass Covid around like a plate of mashed potatoes at Thanksgiving dinner. Who gives a shit? Four on a chair and up the mountain you go.
So I was a little amused to see Vail find a way to keep tension and drama alive in its liftlines with the deployment of “phone free zones.” Per Vail Daily:
On Wednesday, however, Vail Resorts spokesperson John Plack confirmed that one of those operating specifics include a concept called a “Phone Free Zone.”
The signs for the zones in Vail lift maze areas are new for this season as part of the new operating plan, Plack confirmed.
Vail skier Tanner Miller was recently scolded by a line attendant for using his device in the Phone Free Zone at Chair 2 in Vail.
Miller said he couldn’t help but feel slightly insulted as an initial reaction.
“They won’t even let me fight the boredom of their enormous lift line by checking Epic Mix,” he said. “And this is coming from the same resort that equipped the gondola with WiFi.”
That’s a real money quote there, as it underscores Vail’s rapid shift to a ski day defined by the three-way relationship between Vail, you, and your smartphone. “Why would you need a trailmap, just use your phone, where you can also check lift status and wait times? Just remember, whatever you do, do not use your phone in those liftlines!”
It’s all so very confounding. Look, I am firmly in camp Smartphones Suck. I can’t walk five feet in New York without steamrolling a slow-stepping zombie scrolling their Instapost. Driving has become an exercise in constant vigilance, lest you get sideswiped by a texting bozo in an Escalade. Everyone, including me, would be better off if we rounded up our 8 billion smartphones and launched them into the sun. That said, I can’t help but notice that Vail has better things to worry about, like fully opening its mountains.
Business: The New York Times on ski-area staffing shortages. An update on The Balsams. White Pine, Wyoming has new owners. An overview of Mt. Peter updates for this season. The status of the three New England ski areas that never re-opened following the March 2020 Covid shutdowns: Tenney, Ski Blandford, and Granite Gorge. Many Shawnee Peak, Maine skiers would like to see the name revert to Pleasant Mountain under Boyne’s ownership.
Lifts: Holiday Valley will replace the Mardi Gras Xpress quad – by far its longest chairlift – with a six-pack for the 2023-24 season. Sierra-at-Tahoe replaces fire-damaged Grandview Express’ haul rope. Whaleback’s summit lift is temporarily out of commission (again).
Kids: Graduates of Winter4Kids programs at New Jersey’s National Winter Activity Center will get a three-year season pass at Camelback.
People: Attitash names Hidden Valley, Missouri GM Brandon Swartz as its new GM. “Local rock-climbing legend” Merill Bitter died while backcountry skiing in Utah’s Grizzly Gulch. Skier also dies out-of-bounds on the Idaho side of Lost Trail while another survives a slide in Grand Teton National Park.
Stoke: A list of top-10 ski movies that does not include Aspen Extreme. New York Ski Blog at Greek Peak, Holiday Valley, and Snow Ridge. Adventures at Stratton and Victor Constant at West Point. New England Ski Journal on Smuggs. In case you’re interested in seeing what my basement looks like, I joined Fox 5 New York via Zoom to talk NYC-area skiing.
This week in skiing
Jan. 18 – Bristol and Ski Sawmill
With a storm landing over MLK weekend Bristol was primed, the whole joint blown open and the Comet Express spinning 1,200-foot high-speed laps off the top. Steamrolled by the groomers but plenty ungroomed too, snow untouched in the trees off Lower Universe, crowds light on a weekday. Perhaps the best fall-line skiing in New York State outside of Whiteface, the lines steep and consistent. But amidst this varnished ballroom expanse my favorite run was the choppy bumped-up liftline beneath the humble Sunset double, a 49-year-old Borvig that chugs forgotten alongside the alpha quad.
Bristol is a great and well-tended ski area, but it’s a big mountain that skis small and at midday I headed south. In the midst of a vast Pennsylvania wilderness I found Ski Sawmill, 515 vertical feet fizzling into a spectacular blue sunset:
Slammed by the MLK storm this place too was wide open. I alternated between the triple chair and the T-bar, the knot of narrow runs burrowing through the trees skier’s right and the ungroomed straight shots skier’s left. The best of these was Double Bucker, an unlit dagger tunneling through the forest on all-natural snow. This was Pennsylvania night-riding, lit with the explosive joy of teenage energy, but the skiing was quite good – a small ski area that skied big.
Jan. 21 – Smugglers’ Notch
For various reasons I did not get off of green-circle Morse Mountain but really nothing else that happened that day matters other than this:
Jan. 22 – Smugglers’ Notch
It was 18 degrees below zero at dawn. Brilliant sunshine. No wind. All day I skied Madonna with Smuggs snow reporter Hugh Johnson, author of the best mountain-conditions blog in the Northeast. He has the greatest job on the mountain and he may have the greatest job in New England, all winter long blazing down this spectacular mountain. Hugh is an impossible skier, fused to the land like some kind of forest creature, bounding fearlessly through Smuggs’ vast treed labyrinth. I did my best to keep up on a pair of frontside sticks, Rossignol TI 88s, like trying to maneuver an 18-wheeler through a Burger King drive-thru. I could try to tell you where we went but Hugh already did that. Madonna may be the best peak in the east, a fierce twisting expanse plunging relentlessly down 2,150 vertical feet. Its trailmap is a mere starting point – practically the whole thing is skiable. The summit lift is beautiful, the longest Hall double left on the planet, a churning green monster installed the year of the Kennedy assassination. It’s impossible to appreciate the drama of this thing lacing up into the horizon until you’re standing on the snow staring up the line:
Jan. 23 – Smugglers’ Notch
The family slept in and before the long drive home I caught first chair at Sterling and explored Smuggs’ intermediate peak. It was 35 degrees warmer, cloudy, snowing lightly. The Sterling lift, like Madonna, like all the chairlifts at Smuggs, is an antique Hall double, planted in 1964 and muscling up the incline ever since.
I did fast laps on groomers, through bony glades, down the rocky liftline, skating onto the lift. It is hard to imagine a better eastern ski area than Smugglers’ Notch, its three peaks neatly spliced by ability level, separate like distinct ski areas, improbable like something crafted, slammed each winter with more than 300 inches of snow. In its paint-peeled utilitarian glory it somehow floats even with gleaming Stowe and Sugarbush, with sprawling Jay and more deliberately throwback Mad River Glen. These five ski areas, stacked south to north along the Green Mountain spine, are the best in Vermont and the best, on a consistent basis, in New England: sprawling, steep, cold, and snowy, carved like some unlikely videogame kingdom from the lesser mountains below. Smuggs may be the best of them all. It doesn’t need new lifts and it doesn’t need to be combined with Stowe and it doesn’t need to join any pass. It needs to be left alone, a ski area focused on skiing, a wormhole into a different time and a slower (and perhaps better) world.
This Week in Skiing is truncated to honor Gmail’s email length restrictions. I also skied Holiday Valley, Cockaigne, Peek N’ Peak, Mount Pleasant, Tussey, and Mt. Peter since the last edition. I will catch up in the next newsletter.