Belleayre Update with Joe Kelly

Bellearyre LodgeAs Belleayre ramps up for its 2010-11 season, we haven’t been hearing much news from the Catskills’ only state-owned ski area. While there have been no rumors of potential cutbacks due to state budget issues, neither have we heard about any major upgrades — certainly nothing on the magnitude of what’s been happening at Gore and Whiteface the last several seasons — so we felt that it was time to check in with Joe Kelly, longtime founder and chairman of the Coalition To Save Belleayre. For more than a quarter century, Kelly and his watchdog group have advocated on behalf of the ski area to ensure that it remains a vital part of the western Catskills economy.

What is Belleayre’s operations outlook for the 2010-11 season?

We’re going to be in full operation this season. There’s a clear recognition that without Belleayre being fully open, the Route 28 corridor would be in big trouble. I’m confident that our full budget will be provided this year.

Did state budget cuts have any impact on Belleayre last season?

Given the status of New York State’s finances at the beginning of last season, there were concerns about cuts impacting operations, but I skied there at least twice a week through closing day in mid-April. All of the trails had great cover, and all lifts were open. Just like any other ski area, Belleayre scales back its workforce after the peak part of the season. Last year’s labor cutback occurred earlier than usual; however, it didn’t cause any major disruptions in ski operations.

What happened to the plans for a new Discovery Lodge at the base of the hill? Wasn’t it shovel-ready a few years ago?

The Discovery Lodge was not only shovel-ready, it was supposed to be completed a few years ago. But with all the budget machinations in Albany and the fact that former Governor Spitzer left office and wasn’t able to push through the Agreement in Principle that he signed, it never got off the ground.

Instead of rebuilding that lodge, there are now plans to renovate it to make it more functional. It’s not what we had hoped for, but we’ll have to live with it.

Is there any news about the Belleayre Resort?

The resort is the victim of the same economic conditions that have stymied developments nationwide. As I’m sure you’re aware, there aren’t a lot of condos being sold anywhere, so many major construction projects are taking a wait-and-see approach until the economy improves. Not to get ahead of ourselves in the election process, but if Andrew Cuomo becomes governor, we’re hoping that he’ll advocate for the ski area and region the same way that former Governor Spitzer did, and create incentives for businesses to invest in the western Catskills.

Are slopeside accommodations still a big part of this plan?

Every study points to the importance of creating a base of beds directly alongside the ski area in a concentrated area, instead of spreading them out and disturbing the environment. The developers came up with a compromise plan that was approved by such organizations as the Natural Resources Defense Council, the Catskill Center for Conservation and Development, and Trout Unlimited — they all wanted to see this happen. I’m confident that the resort will get built, but because of the current economic circumstances, we may need to wait a bit longer.

Do you believe that not being part of ORDA has negatively affected Belleayre’s ability to get state funding for operations, trail building and infrastructure?

I would say that is painfully obvious when you consider the massive terrain additions, snowmaking, and new or upgraded lifts and infrastructure that the northern ski areas have added over the past decade. Both from an equality point of view and at a time of tremendous economic challenges to our region, I’d love to see some of the money that’s been poured into Whiteface and Gore be shifted to Belleayre. It’s long overdue, especially when you consider that Belleayre has more skier visits than Whiteface and is only a bit behind Gore.

The problem is that we’re hamstrung by two different but related issues: the DEC’s unwillingness to approve any proposals that will help Belleayre become a more attractive ski area, and the fact that we don’t have the ORDA lobbying machinery behind us. The result is that most of the state ski money from Albany flows north.

What do you think about giving Belleayre season passholders reciprocity at Whiteface and Gore?

New York State had a three-mountain season pass years ago, before Whiteface and Gore broke off into ORDA, and I think that it’s an idea we should revisit. Belleayre passholders would get additional value from their pass by being able to use them at Gore and Whiteface, and it would help the Adirondack economy by attracting people from downstate who would otherwise head to Vermont for a multi-day trip.

In addition to providing the Lake Placid and North Creek regions with more destination visitors, they would get additional visibility from Belleayre passholders returning from the Adirondacks with good word-of-mouth. Gore and Whiteface are trying to attract new revenue streams — not just daytrippers from the Albany area — and downstaters are, in my opinion, the low-hanging fruit. I don’t see any downside to this idea.

To play devil’s advocate, wouldn’t Gore and Whiteface be less than thrilled to receive non-revenue ski visits from Belleayre passholders?

If you’re running a private, for-profit ski area, it’s all about the bottom line. By definition, you’re going to watch out for your own self interests. State-owned recreational facilities, on the other hand, are owned by the people of New York State for the people of New York State. Thus, they exist to provide two things: 1) affordable public recreation to people who may not otherwise have the opportunity (and the same goes for state-owned golf courses, beaches, and other facilities), and 2) an economic boost to rural regions that otherwise wouldn’t have much activity during the winter months.

In my opinion, too many people at New York State’s publicly-owned ski areas are taking a myopic view of things, and are concerned only about keeping or increasing their piece of the pie. We need everyone to see the bigger picture. Whiteface, Gore, and Belleayre are there to support the surrounding region, not to become money generators or profit centers in and of themselves.

What’s maddening is New York State’s three ski areas provide a very compelling ski product — each mountain has a very specific personality and selling points — but they aren’t being promoted as effectively as they should. Out west, Vail Resorts offers a hugely popular season pass (the Epic Pass) that includes several resorts instead of only one. New York State should be doing something in the same vein. The fact that Belleayre is, as far as passes and marketing are concerned, kept separate from Gore and Whiteface is symptomatic of this problem and, in my opinion, a big mistake.

We have a massive market of skiers from the New York City region who regularly bypass the Catskills and Adirondacks in favor of Vermont. By leveraging our three ski areas as a combined force, we create a perception of value to skiing in New York State. For example, a combined pass would allow someone from downstate to hop up to Belleayre for a quick weekday trip, and then plan a longer destination trip or two each season to Gore and Whiteface without needing to factor in the cost of lift tickets. It’s a perfect example of “the sum is greater than the parts.”

Last year, the Catskills ski areas put aside their considerable differences to offer a region-wide discount card. You have to wonder why a combined effort like this can’t be mounted by the three state-owned mountains.

The overall ski industry in New York State is just beginning to learn the benefits of joint marketing to increase the overall ski population. I was very encouraged that the Catskill areas (Belleayre, Hunter, Plattekill, Holiday, and Windham) worked together to create a combined marketing and discount program targeted at skiers who would otherwise drive double the distance to southern Vermont. These efforts are still at an early stage, but it’s a good start. I’d like to see the state-owned areas do the same thing. Even if we assume that each ski area’s percentage of the pie remains the same; by increasing the size of the pie, that’s more revenue for everyone.

While the SANY Gold Pass (a transferable pass valid at any ski area in New York State) is, at $1,100, too expensive for most people, I think that it’s a great idea and is moving in the cooperative direction that I was talking about.

You mentioned the DEC’s unwillingness to approve Belleayre proposals.

The DEC overreacts to virtually every proposal from Belleayre, and monkey-wrenches even the most innocuous requests. Without equivocation, we go through a far more onerous environmental review than anywhere else in New York State. Look at the real-estate developments that have been built at Hunter and Windham over the past few years. To provide a comparison, the approval process for the North Creek village took two years start to finish. The proposal for the Belleayre Resort has been on the table for more than 11 years!

The amount of money and time spent on these reviews is absolutely mind-boggling. The Belleayre Resort Agreement in Principle from Governor Spitzer occurred three years ago. He wanted shovels in the ground the following year, but three years after the Agreement in Principle was signed, it’s still in limbo. Millions of dollars have been spent carrying out two incredibly detailed Unit Management Plan reviews — one for the combined ski area/resort and one for just the ski area, and we can’t get either approved. How are we supposed to move forward and plan for the future?

Do you feel that public opinion is turning toward an approach that balances environmental protection with economic activity?

There is a pervasive view that while protecting the environment is extremely important, the economic conditions in rural areas like Ulster County have become equally significant. The worst thing that can happen to a region is poverty. When people have no economic alternatives, they often start undertaking questionable environmental practices because they can’t afford to do the right thing.

The DEC has been saying “no” to virtually everything in this county for so long, and look at the result on the Route 28 corridor: closed businesses and places of worship, declining school enrollment, foreclosures, for-sale signs, and inhabitants moving elsewhere for better opportunities. People are reluctant to invest in Upstate New York, and until we strike a balance between the environment and economic activity, this downward spiral will continue. Jobs need to be created so people can earn a living.

It’s not just the Belleayre region, it’s all of Upstate New York. The problem with our region is that we’re under such a microscope environmentally, due to it being in the New York City watershed.

Given all these environmental constraints, along with the economic conditions that are prevalent statewide and locally, being in Tony Lanza’s shoes is not easy. The fact that Belleayre runs as well as it does is a testament to his talents as a manager. However, no mountain can stand still in the ski business and survive.

20 comments on “Belleayre Update with Joe Kelly

  1. I thought I was going to read a positive report about Bell’s upcoming season. Turns out it was mostly ORDA bashing. BTW, to get things done WF and Gore have to deal with the DEC too, as well as the APA.

  2. “We have a massive market of skiers from the New York City region who regularly bypass the Catskills and Adirondacks in favor of Vermont. By leveraging our three ski areas as a combined force, we create a perception of value to skiing in New York State. For example, a combined pass would allow someone from downstate to hop up to Belleayre for a quick weekday trip, and then plan a longer destination trip or two each season to Gore and Whiteface without needing to factor in the cost of lift tickets. It’s a perfect example of “the sum is greater than the parts.”

    Somebody’s thinking. Kill the condo idea, though.

  3. I know I would personally LOVE it if a season pass included all three mountains. We have a place in NC that we rent out for about half the season. We make a few weekend trips up to Whiteface when our house is rented. I would absolutely hit Bells at least 4-5 times a season if I could go on my pass. It is close enough for me to hit on a day trip and I would consider doing a weekend or two there if I could find cheap digs.

    I don’t know that I would call this ORDA bashing. I don’t know squat about the ORDA politics, but it does seem like Belleayre would benefit from being part of ORDA.

  4. I didn’t get the impression that Joe Kelly was advocating Belleayre joining ORDA (and as was addressed in an earlier Harvey Road discussion, I don’t even know if it’s possible), but rather a joint marketing/ticketing effort that would be a win-win for all three ski regions.

  5. What’s wrong with just building a family-friendly HOTEL, at the BASE of the slopes?? We could use a hotel and the Wildacres property is right there. Locals proposed that common-sense compromise years ago!

    Why such extensive clearing for an 18-hole golf course and condos, TWO hotels, TWO spas, new roads, night sky-killing street lights, timeshare condos, houses, and water towers all the way up the steep mountainside and on the ridge, ABOVE the slopes–as they demand?

    Why should NY taxpayers provide special access, trails and snowmaking for their well-heeled private guests, at the expense of public ski slope users? We can only hope the next governor will be smarter than Spitzer was on that score!

    Contrary to genuine concern for the beloved, rustic PUBLIC Belleayre Mountain Ski Center and families that use it, Kelly is merely the mouthpiece for wealthy land speculators’ PR effort. Their aim is to confuse readers by entangling the future of OUR public ski center with the construction of their massive, speculative, taxpayer-enabled, view-killing, private high-end timeshares scheme, called Belleayre Resort, that would monopolize and forever change the character of the area.

    That 11-year long gambit by these speculators and their staff (including Mr. Kelly?) is the true reason for delay of sensible improvements to the PUBLIC state-run ski center that otherwise could have been completed LONG AGO.

    Don’t be fooled! See more info and sign a petition at

  6. Anonymous: Love the hotel idea. Personally, I could care less about owning, and all I want is an affordable bed, and, because of this real estate mania that has actually given us the absurdity of 200,000 dollar quarter shares out west, I can’t find one in a lot of places. Your idea may be the wave of the future. But, as you say, real estate speculators/developers walk hand in hand with corrupt politicians. Look at Florida right now – the most pathetic market in the country, entire communities severely underwater, and the developers are still building, with the public astounded to see these things go up with minimal review.

  7. I don’t think that the Discovery Lodge & the Spitzer AIP were even related. Joe Kelly and the ill named Coalition to Save Belleayre should concentrate on the Belleayre Mountain Ski Center (BMSC) and stop being cheerleaders for a poorly planned mega resort & the wanna be real estate developers behind it. Improvements needed at BMSC would have been helped by stimulus funding if the foot dragging by Crossroads had not delayed the DEC UMP for BMSC.

  8. Yeah…maybe not, how about changing bashing to envy, that work for ya SB?

    Look, I wish all the best for Belleayre and those that ski there, but why have so many ORDA references in a post titled Belleayre Update with Joe Kelly? The implication is always Gore and WF get so much and we keep getting screwed. I just get tired of hearing that. There was even an implication in the interview that Hunter gets preferential treatment over Belleayre. Maybe times have changed, but I remember something about the DEC wasn’t too happy with Hunter for cutting Upper Highlands without approval. Hunter also wanted to do a land swap so they could get their hands on more skiable terrain. The DEC would not go for it. They were many years where they were not best pals.

  9. “Improvements needed at BMSC would have been helped by stimulus funding if the foot dragging by Crossroads had not delayed the DEC UMP for BMSC.”

    That’s a good point, does Bell even have a UMP in place outside of BMSC. The last I heard they did not and additions/improvements can’t happen until one in written and approved.

  10. First off it was Spitzer who pushed that deal through. What do you think he was thinking. He lost his credibility a long time ago. Second Belleayre has an ego driven leader who undercut the regional effort in the Catskills and therefore it is now gone. Why don’t you interview the other 3 private operators in the Cats. Lastly you have Dean Gitter who comes from the same ego school as Lanza. Need I say more. Belleayre needs to learn how to play nice and play fair. The other state areas don’t want him on their team. That in itself speaks volumes.

  11. Uh oh, my mistake. That info-packed website is www. (not .com) Their red signs and bumper stickers are all over.

    Right Highpeaks. The last proposed UMP for Belleayre was pulled off the table, delayed for years, then revised to benefit and cobbled together with the proposed private development and presented to the public BY DEC in a combo plan–not as AN option, but as the ONLY option. Period. No discussion!

    DEC needs to step back, follow its own procedures and ASK the public at last, during a regular UMP process, what WE want for OUR public Belleayre Mountain and the Ski Center! It’s part of the forever wild forest preserve and inside Catskill State Park for heaven’s sake!

    About Lanza’s ego–he has wasted SO much taxpayer money on temporary snowmaking to compete for meaningless, self-aggrandizing superlatives like first to open, open latest etc., promoting the private Resort scheme–such that the judge had to GAG him, and even sending staff all over the country (even internationally?) trying to compete with the ski mountains out west. !

    We could use a more public-oriented manager for sure. The State should have done that audit of Lanza’s management.

  12. The BMSC UMP has been on hold waiting for the Crossroads Resort Environmental Impact Statement.Those two documents were then to be combined for a cumulative impact statement.

    The Crossroads EIS has been due out in two months… for two years. It is high time for the DEC to consider the resort dead and move on.

  13. I’m no Belleayre expert, and I’ve only met Joe Kelly once. But seems to me he’s got some respect for the job ORDA is doing pushing things ahead for Gore and Whiteface.

    The whole question of whether or not Bell passholders would actually fill LP or NC beds is, to me, an interesting one. If Bell has an email list, I’d like to see a simple survey go out that asks passholders about their ski habits. Do they actually take that family week at Stratton every year?

    I’ve been trying to find numbers for Bell’s skier visits and budgets. The DEC site says visits rose from 75,000 to 175,000 over 10 years, and article was dated 2005. I couldn’t find anything on the budget. Would appreciate it if anyone can point me in the right direction. I’d like to get all three NY ski areas skier visit and budget data on NYSB.

  14. I remember someone in an earlier discussion pointed out that a study hadn’t been conducted to prove that downstate skiers would use a three-mountain season pass to go on a destination trip or two to the ADKs.

    If I put a pile of fresh meat in front of a pack of hungry dogs, I don’t need to poll them individually or conduct a double-blind study beforehand to know that they’d devour it.

    Since there seems to be skepticism about the concept of the three ski areas working together in an organized fashion (which seemed to be Kelly’s point, not ORDA-bashing), let’s rephrase the question — who would be the loser if NYS tried out a Belle/Gore/WF season pass?

  15. That was me James who said that there was no hard evidence that a 3 NYS mountain pass would be helpful to all involved and that saying that it was a fact was pure conjecture.

    I also asked the question if the benefits of the 3-mountain pass were a sure thing why haven’t the many savvy business people in both the WF and Gore regions pushed for it? Why can’t they see the merits of your pack of hungry dogs correlation James?

    You may be right, maybe it would be a good thing, but you’re selling it as a foregone conclusion and I ain’t drinkin’ that Cool-Aid?

  16. Who is this guy? Here he is crying about all the money going to Gore and WF through ORDA. I guess he forgot the $8mill that Bell got starting in the late 1990s. The HSQ Superchief and fixed quad Tomahawk didn’t materialize out of thin air. Belle is probably getting close to its 25 mile trail length limit and needs to save what’s left in case the big development ever happens.

    Belle certainly is a little rough around the edges, but so are WF and Gore. Belle seems to be doing fine.

    This guy also has no idea about what goes on at ORDA. Belle is better off on its own.

    The 3 pass thing would have no value to Gore/WF $ but it might have value to the ORDA board members who own huge properties in LP.

  17. x10003q said… “Belle is probably getting close to its 25 mile trail length limit and needs to save what's left in case the big development ever happens.”

    You put your finger on it, x10003q, but you think that’s a good thing?

    Instead of managing BMSC and its possible expansion for the skiers and taxpayers who own it, btw developing kids and novices into life-long skiers who use the other mountains as well, Lanza and some politicians push this private timeshare real estate scam.

    As you note, it would USE UP the remaining trail availability under the constitution to accommodate promised private “ski-in ski-out” trails way to the west. AND provide their needed snowmaking at taxpayer expense, for well-heeled guests and private profit.

    A BMSC skier at one public meeting on this proposal asked where will limited snowmaking go in less-than-favorable snow years — and who will PAY for it? Could taxpayers even be sued if promised snow is not provided to the private “Resort” as agreed? Who gets the snow? Who gets the trails?

    As discussed above, so far DEC has bowed to closed-door Albany-insider political deals, ignored their own UMP public process and still has not asked the public, taxpayer-owners, what they want for BMSC.

    That makes NO SENSE.

  18. Interesting discussion. Too bad it has been mostly hijacked by anti development die hards.

    The truth is that you need to keep improving the guest experience in the ski business and Belleayre needs to get better. It needs upgrades in trails, lifts, lodging, terrain, parking. JK’s pointing out the large changes at G and WF did not sound bitter or begrudging to me; only angry that the same kind of improvements aren’t happening here, where the evidence of the economic downturn are evident everywhere.

    BTW, don’t dismiss the resort project. This has been under review for 10+ years – the longest in NYS history! In its present configuration it has been endorsed by most local and national environmental groups-the CCCD, NRDC, NYC among others. It is overwhelmingly endorsed by the elected representatives bodies of Ulster and Delaware counties and the elected governing bodies of every neighboring village and township. The naysayers are a very vocal small minority, well financed by a few millionaire NIMBYists. The same people people opposed applying for or accepting federal stimulus funds for the ski center-not the resort-but the Belleayre Mountain Ski Center, writing guest editorials no less.

    With or without the resort project, the BMSC needs upgrading. The DEC has been foot dragging and promising the release of the UMP for years. Contrary to assertions, there is no legal or procedural need to wait for any developer. This UMP is long, long overdue.

    With or without the resort the ski center needs upgrading.

    My observations os a 30 year Belleayre fan..I await the howls but will not respond.

  19. I know this an old post but look where we are now. Joe Kelly is on the board of ORDA. Now, here is a guy that was quite cozy with Tony Lanza. Whenever the coalition would have parties at Joe’s house you would not believe how much taxpayer money went into them. Tony would take about 5 or 6 Belleayre employees, a few pick up trucks and a mule 4×4 with pieces of staging , electrical needs for lighting up the dance floor. Then when the parties were over Tony would send the crew back over to Joe Kelly’s to clean up. All of the trash went into the DEC dumpsters and compactor truck. Don’t even get me started on Joe Kelly’s wife. She has ties to the Gitter clan with a half million dollar land deal for her and her poor hubby. I could go on for quite a while like the business of not stocking our ski shops for years while Jimmy’s ski shop flourished and even expanded. The carpenters crew even went to Jimmy’s once to shovel snow from his roof while they were on the states time. And everyone feels bad for Tony? I think they should disband the coalition now that we are in the hands of ORDA.

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