NY Skiing: Financing the Future

This spring ORDA approved a plan to invest $91.7M in Whiteface, Gore, Belleayre and Mount van Hoevenberg. Funds were appropriated for a variety of projects including new and improved lifts, lodges, snowmaking and other infrastructure. The most high profile projects include a $19.7M lodge at the North Creek Ski Bowl and a $16.5M two-stage detachable quad at Whiteface.

Artist rendering of new North Creek Ski Bowl Lodge courtesy ORDA

This is the latest in a series of transformational infrastructure upgrades for New York’s state-run ski areas that has spanned decades, dating back to the 1960s. Since that time, marquee projects have included gondolas, lifts, lodges, snowmaking, new terrain, and access to water from the Hudson River.

Public reaction to the announcement of the current plan included a mixture of excitement and stunned disbelief. Some hailed the vision, while others questioned the scale.

How much should the state spend over time to maintain their investment in skiing? How does NY best promote regional development? At what level does spending on public ski areas make it harder for private ski areas to compete? These questions aren’t easy to answer.

All in, ORDA is pretty big mountain; combined the ski areas have 33 lifts, 260 trails and nine lodges on 1000+ acres. Most people I’ve spoken to accept the fact: if New York is going to own ski mountains, they’re going to have to invest in them.  If you’re maintaining 30 lifts and lifts last 30 years, you’ll always be replacing or upgrading something.  And lifts are only one part of a mountains infrastructure, in this case $38M or 40% of the total budget.

I spoke to Peter Landsman of LiftBlog and asked him to help me put this expenditure in context. He believes the size of the investment is appropriate for New York’s state run ski areas. He added:

“Skiing is a capital intensive business. Every ski area wishes it could spend a high percentage of revenue on capital improvements. Most private ski areas can’t afford to make the kinds of infrastructure investments ORDA makes at the frequency ORDA makes them.”

It’s a question of scale or maybe, the perception of scale.  What is the right level of investment? How often should an investment of this size happen? I’m not qualified to answer those questions, and I’m not going to try. Instead, we propose an approach that allows NY to maintain its investments while further encouraging regional development, across the entire state.

Please note: While I’ve used specific numbers to illustrate the thinking, I leave the final numbers to engineers, operations and leadership in Albany. We’re proposing an idea, not a specific project or budget.


The idea isn’t a new one.  We’ve proposed similar ideas before, first in 2013 and then again in 2017.

Then, in 2018, NYSERDA rolled out groundbreaking incentives  — for all NY ski areas, both public and private — to upgrade snowmaking.  Led by Scott Brandi of SANY, this plan was a great step forward, an investment in New York’s future. Thirty private ski areas took advantage of the program to improve their product quality and energy-efficiency.

The positive effects of that initiative will be long lasting, but ski areas need a steady stream of investment. This latest ORDA package is more evidence that at the highest levels of government, New York understands the importance of skiing as an economic driver. The state invests something in ski area capital each year. Then every so often, a bigger investment, like this one, is approved and it gets a lot of attention.

We believe snowmaking is still the low hanging fruit, here in New York. Snowmaking directly impacts the value of the season and the profitability of the business. How much snow can you make in a short window? And a directly related followup: how much terrain will you have open by Christmas? The answer to that question can make or break a season.


Proposal: NY Snowmaking Efficiency Initiative 2.0

The 2018 NYSERDA program was structured in a way that worked for both government and business owners. Our proposal uses that initiative as a model. Private operators would have skin in the game, investing 20% of the total invested.

We propose expanding the current spending to include funds for private ski areas. And we’d like to take that further. When the state invests $100M in publicly owned assets, it should trigger a response that encourages the private areas. An additional 20% or $20M could ensure that every ski area in the state has a chance to be included.

This money would be distributed through a simple application and approval process, with plans being reviewed by a state-appointed engineer. Awards could be limited to a maximum of $600,000 per ski area.  Each application would outline the improvements to insure that they fall within pre-determined guidelines.  Projects would focus on efficiency: snowmaking, electrical infrastructure, system engineering costs, snowguns, pipeline, compression, pumping and water storage.

Private ski areas in New York cover more than 4500 acres of terrain. That’s five times the size of New York’s four state-run ski areas combined.  NY ski areas are upstate and spread out, across rural parts of New York where modest investments can really make a difference.

With everyone included the program, it would be likely to garner more universal support.  Taxpaying ski areas would see return on investment in their own corner of state. New York has a history investing in winter sports to drive economic development. This could expand that impact across the entire state, for a relatively modest additional investment.


Sources:

ORDA plans 91.7 million in improvements

• SANY and state collaborate on new snow gun program

• Quebec to offer loans for capital improvements

13 comments on “NY Skiing: Financing the Future

  1. Most NY ski areas have major infrastructure needs. They lack one or more of what a quality ski area needs: efficient snow making, reliable lifts, and suitable base facilities, often including lodging. Most are small and poorly financed and have been unable to make these investments on their own. The place I work tried. They made major lodging investments 20 years ago. When they couldn’t meet the payments during “The Great Recession” they were auctioned off in bankruptcy. A risk taking “White Night” buyer bought it and immediately made major investments in a new lift and snow making upgrades. But so much more is needed: Most urgent is replacing the rest of the lifts.

    These places need (probably subsidized) affordable financing. And if the state is subsidizing the competition thru ORDA, the state should be doing the same for the small private operators, who are major feeder hills located near the state’s major metro areas.

  2. Investment in feeder hill is critical for future success. The independent resorts spread out across the state of the life blood and culture creators of NY skiing. Invest in them and the return on investment is seen at all resorts state wide. Great write up Harv!

  3. Excellent update Harvey.

    In looking at the above rendering, its obvious that the Ski Bowl as we all know it is destined to just become more of the same old same old, not unlike what was done to the High Peaks Chair and Dark Side. I’m not sure when ORDA will figure out that bigger is not always better. Gore is a huge ski area and unless the State is able to bring all they build online over the course of a winter, I just don’t see the investment being worth it. Skiing can still be an intimate sport, its not always about chopping out huge swaths of forest for expansive slopes and high speed high capacity lifts. When has anyone ever seen major lift lines at the Ski Bowl?

    And what about the Village of North Creek? If ORDA were smart, they would conceptualize a plan that would integrate the Village of North Creek into the Mountain. I am certain there is a way to make the Village a Ski In – lift Out Village. How great would that be for local merchants, hotels, shops, etc. Gore and North Creek is probably the only location in the State of NY that has the ability to create a destination ski area that could have that level of integration. Of course they would loose revenue from their food concessions but I can’t believe that money would not be made up in different ways.

    And yes, of course the State should be subsidizing local mountains. After all, keeping the local mountains healthy insures that future generations of young skiers will learn to love the sport. And when it comes time for their big mountain experience, they have the States Big 3 to lean on.

    It would be interesting to understand the ORDA decision making process. In my opinion destroying the Ski Bowl is not a good idea, and a lodge of that magnitude will not be efficient and beneficial to the broader community. Maybe they need to reassess their process and planning?

    But what do I know, I’m just a skier.

  4. At one point, many people say, New York State had more ski areas than any other states in the country.

  5. As of 2020 and 2021, it appears that NY STILL has the most ski areas in the country. And it’s not even a close race. NY had about 50 areas. The next runner ups would be Colorado, California and NH, who have “about” 30 each. Wisconsin has about 30 too. Not saying that NY has the best skiing, or most ski-able acres, or vertical drop, amount of snow, length of season, or…. but whatever. But NY has the most areas.

    Actually this should surprise no one who lives in upstate NY, because I am sure it includes plenty of private ski hills, public parks and the like. In my area of Upstate NY we’ve got Cazanovia, Skaneateles and Camilus Ski Clubs. Then there is Four Seasons (aka 90 Acres by some), which brags that they are the smallest ski area in the country. Anyway, here are my sources:

    51 in 2020 according to Unofficial Networks and Statista.com.

    49 in 2021 according to NSAA.org. And “over 50” according to ISKINY.

  6. And Michigan comes in with 40! Jeeeeeees, I gotta learn how to read a map. So NY is not so far out in front.

  7. Somewhere i have an old ski map from late 60’s or early 70’s and the number was around 106 areas

  8. Do we really want to give NYS money to places like Hunter, Windham, Holiday Valley?

    ORDA is out of control with their $16.5 million 2 stage insanity HSQuad at Whiteface. There is zero reason for this lift to be created as a 2 stage. There is barely a reason to create this lift as a 1 stage HSQ. Building a lodge in the Ski Bowl at Gore might be a good idea if Gore did not have issues with snowmaking capacity. But none of this matters as visits will remain static for the next 20 years just like they have been static for the last 20 years.

  9. I’m all for adding additional facilities and snowmaking to ski resorts as long as they aren’t detrimental to the actual skiing (like the Dark Side fiasco). How skiers get in and out of the Ski Bowl without a lift directly to the main base area is still a big question mark to me.

    I’m all for giving private resorts cheap financing for upgrades, but simply handing over money grants to private business rubs me the wrong way as a state tax payer (especially as one who doesn’t even live in the state). NYS wants to stay competitive against the monsters next door in Vermont and even out west. Unless you want terminate ORDA and sell off to Vail or Alterra they can’t rely on the little feeder hills to do so.

    I think there is room for both ORDA and the smaller private hills, we’ve talked extensively about how the ones that are operating smartly had their best year ever despite the lack of natural. I personally find them complimentary to each other. As skiers lets just be happy that the state is investing in our sport.

  10. My original inclination was also toward loans vs grants. The way I understand it, the state is predisposed to this kind of program and for a variety of reasons, this kind of a plan has a much better chance of actually happening vs loans. The way it happened in 2018 with the NYSERDA deal.

    Originally I also thought loans (or whatever kind of financing was agreed upon) should be applicable to any form of upgrade, not just snowmaking/efficiency investment.

    In speaking to Peter from Liftblog, I learned a lot. Lifts are older on average in the northeast than they are out west. There are three reasons for this:

    • Ski areas in the northeast are, on average, older than they are out west

    • Verts are shorter and more fixed grips are in use in the east. (Fixed grips last longer.)

    • Ski areas in the northeast spend much more of their capex on snowmaking than areas out west, so they have less money to upgrade other infrastructure.

    These factors combined to convince me that if snowmaking is the “easiest” thing to subsidize, (ie it actually happens for whatever reason) it could free up other money to make improvements in other areas.

    Trying not to let a perfect plan, get in the way of a good one.

  11. Harv, well thought out. I think private areas should have some skin in the game; maybe $1 of investment for $2 in grant. There could be a graduated scale with critical infrastructure (snowmaking) with a greater state contribution.

    I tell you this, to spend $16.5M (assuming no change requests) on a lift to mid station is being flashy to the point of arrogant, not to mention the end-of-life LWF/Mountain Run chairs. There must be dozens of more cost effective options to this new lift, especially given that the extra cost of a 2-stage lift will, itself, provide no additional ROI.

    Imagine if you owned a taxi business with a fleet of mostly Chevys…..and the government taxi company upgraded their fleet to Aston Martins…..and when you called the gov’t taxi company your driver was in a ’92 Taurus. That’s how it comes across to me.

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