Guest Opinion: Belleayre Ski Center Expansion

Plattekill Mountain logoI understand the support the Belleayre mountain expansion project has been receiving and I acknowledge the positive economic impact it could have for the local communities. But there are some real negative effects it could have as well on the local businesses it will compete against. My ski area, Plattekill Mountain, is one of those businesses.

I have reservations about the magnitude of Belleayre Resort, but I don’t have a problem with the project itself. It’s private money that’s being put at risk.  Route 28 is in desperate need of more quality lodging properties. If that’s what they want to build, and they’re willing to see it through, let them do it. That’s capitalism.

With regard to the Belleayre Ski Center build out, I believe that the business model is flawed.  I don’t think the state should spend $74 million of public funds to build out a ski area that will struggle to realize a payback. The projections in the DEC’s most recent UMP estimate skier visits to rise to 320,000. This seems extremely optimistic; it’s twice the reported average for Belleayre over the past five years and more than three times the 103,000 visits reported as of March 11 in the most recent season. That number is significantly higher than the numbers put up by New York’s other two ski areas.

If a private ski area like Plattekill were to attempt to borrow $74 million, I doubt we’d be taken seriously by any financial institution.  But if we were able to convince bankers to let us carry that much debt, we’d be in serious financial trouble after a season or two like 2011-12 where all of the ski areas in the region were closed by the middle of March.

This is exactly what happened at Greek Peak in Cortland County, which filed for bankruptcy and was sold at foreclosure auction earlier this year. In that case, an area with 250,000 skier-visits accumulated $48 million of debt after building a hotel and waterpark. They had a growth model that projected 350,000 annual visits and the sale of condos — both of which never materialized — forcing the bankruptcy. The resort recently sold at auction for $6.4 million dollars.

Another example is Montage Mountain near Scranton PA (renamed Sno Mountain). It racked up $14 million in debt, was forced into bankruptcy and sold at auction for around $4 million. I can name others.

I don’t want Plattekill to become another Catskill lost-ski-area statistic like Scotch Valley, Bobcat, Cortina, and many others. We’re moving into our 20th year and we’ve been able to weather bad snow years by keeping our debt load low. Competing against Belleayre and the State has been a difficult challenge, especially during the last decade when millions have been spent on improvements. I’m concerned that it will become even harder to compete with an expansion onto the Highmount property that could diminish our natural terrain advantages that entice skiers to drive the extra 20 minutes to Roxbury.

Belleayre hasn’t been a good neighbor during most of this time. For years before the ORDA takeover, Belleayre undercut our lift ticket prices. They’d wait until we posted our daily ticket rate for the season and then post rates that were the same or a dollar higher. When skiers compared what they were getting for the same price, Belleayre’s infrastructure would often win. On top of this, Belleayre would give the product away for free (BOGO) or come up with other discounts to undercut us, while operating at a loss that was subsidized by your tax dollars and mine.

We can only spend what we make. We have to price our tickets to match our infrastructure, cover our fixed and variable costs, and hopefully make a little money to put back into mountain. We have to build property taxes, general liability insurance and employee benefits into our lift ticket cost. Belleayre is exempt from these costs and under the DEC, ongoing losses were a part of the normal course of business.

We also can’t compete with Belleayre’s pay scale and benefits. It’s quite possible that the expansion at Belleayre may lure away our skilled employees.

The state has real advantages when it comes to infrastructure upgrades too. Ten years ago, the DEC got approvals and several millions in funding to install a connection that linked the top of the mountain and the base lodges to the Pine Hill sewer plant. This is a huge advantage that enables significant growth at Belleayre. It would be impossible for Plattekill to permit and fund a comparable upgrade without help.

In the 2000s, Belleayre installed two new lifts including a detachable quad, along with trail changes, significant improvements to the snowmaking infrastructure, a grooming fleet and a state-of-the-art maintenance shop. Have these projects realized payback or a positive return on investment? It’s hard to see how Belleayre’s level of skier visits and admitted losses justify these expenditures.

How can I grow my business and expand my ski area in this environment? My responsibility is to my employees, my family and the Delaware county businesses that depend on Plattekill for survival. I speak for them. Our employees are just as important to the local economy as are Belleayre’s.

What can be done to allow BOTH ski areas to move forward on a level playing field?

Plattekill’s Proposal

• State backed interest-free loans for the private resorts that compete with Belleayre.

• A commitment by New York to refrain from predatory lift ticket pricing.

• True joint marketing between the ski areas to increase skier visits to the Catskills.

• Promotion of a regulatory environment that encourages equivalent terrain and infrastructure/sewer expansion at the private resorts.

It’s hard for me to accept the existing proposal for New York to pay $5 million for 78 acres at Highmount that the developer paid $250,000 for back in 2000 or 2001. It would be much fairer to Plattekill and other competitors if Crossroads Ventures was to maintain ownership and develop the land on their own. Why aren’t they willing to take that risk? I suspect it’s because they don’t see ROI.

As you might imagine I can’t bear to watch Plattekill Mountain — my life’s work — undermined to the point of failure. But if creative solutions can’t be devised to allow Plattekill to compete with Belleayre, I’d accept the same price per acre that state will pay Crossroads Ventures for the land at Highmount, $64,000/acre. This is not a typo.  By comparison, The State of NY recently purchased 266 acres on Overlook Mountain in Woodstock, highly desirable land, for under $4000/acre.

Finally, put yourself in my ski boots just for a moment.  I’m busting my hump to make payroll and pay taxes that are funding ongoing loses and improvements at my closest competitor. And Belleayre is close. There is no private ski area in the US that is closer to a publicly funded resort.

I am trying to upgrade for the future. Each year I put every dollar of our small net revenue towards used snowguns or parts for our grooming machines. But financing the improvements is much tougher for me than it is for New York. All I’m asking for is a chance to compete on a level field.

Laszlo Vajtay
Owner of Plattekill Mountain
Roxbury NY

29 comments on “Guest Opinion: Belleayre Ski Center Expansion

  1. I have read no better argument against state funding of ski areas than yours, sir.
    My suggestion would be to market more and better to downstate skiers, because, even though ORDA can spend like a drunken sailor on land and equipment, they suck at getting the customers to the product.

    Good Luck.

  2. My family and I are loyal and regular Plattekill skiers. I share your concerns about the state funding idea. Assuming it happens, I wonder if Plattekill might find a way to profit from the increase in skier demand just 20 minutes away, especially considering that your terrain is better, as well as the general vibe of the place. (Underlying this question is the assumption that a “better” Belleayre will attract more skiers to the neighborhood, not just steal Platty skiers.)

    Might you:

    1. Team up for lift tickets good at both areas;
    2. Marketing-wise, think of a way to distinguish yourself from Belleayre in advertising that would be seen by those bound for Belleayre. (I think the billboard on 28 with the kid is too generic).

    These are just two ideas I came up with over breakfast. Perhaps there’s no way to freeride from the Belleayre expansion, and perhaps you’re already thinking about it just this way, but I think it’s worth a conversation.

  3. My wife and I are old Catskill skiers. We now live and ski in the northwest. We ski and own a cabin at mt Baldy just over the Washington state line with B.C. We are in the shadow of all the other Okanogan Ski areas. Big White, Silver Star and Apex. We still are here because we provide a better product. We are much smaller but provide “NO!” liftlines and the best glades in B.C. On days off employees of all the other areas ski with us because we are the real deal!

    If this goes though in the catskills watch the real skiers avoid the snob appeal an show up at your lifts! If it gets too bad for you you are always welcome at Mt. Baldy.

    Embrace the genuine
    Ex. Pat of the Catskills

  4. We are family passholders at Plattekill. None of what they are doing at Belleayre would entice us to go back. On the contrary, bringing in more vacationers would only hurt my experience there. Government should not be in business and there should be no subsidization period. (i will leave the govt rant at that for now). You are doing a great job with Plattekill and we come for the laid back atmosphere, friendly service and most of all the great terrain. Belle is missing all three by a large margin. Keep focused on what makes you better and we will continue to come.

  5. One more idea: promote Telemark and AT skiing. Your telemark program last season seemed successful. That’s a great way to distinguish Plattekill; and it fits your image as a simpler, hardier place. It also kind of works with family skiing; I, for instance, started when I taught my kids to ski. It was a way of having a fun challenge while skiing the lighter terrain with my family. AT skiing might be tricky to integrage, but perhaps there’s a way you could integrate some backcountry terrain or tours that would be accessible on powder days.

  6. Plattekill is my favorite place to ski in the Catskills. But I have to admit, I learned about it from signs I saw when I was driving to Belleayre. Maybe the argument that Belleayre could help Plattekill has something to it. I hope so.

  7. Since taking over the operation of Belleayre, it seems like ORDA has been trying to address the bad-neighbor perceptions that had mushroomed during the DEC years. ORDA is in charge of setting lift-ticket pricing and would work with privately-owned ski areas on a true region-wide marketing program, but what would be involved on Laszlo’s two other points: to promote a regulatory environment that encourages equivalent terrain and infrastructure/sewer expansion at the private resorts and provides state-backed interest-free loans?

  8. One idea myself and others have for Plattekill is to create a ‘natural’ terrain park. Something unlike any other resort on the east. Similar to the Burton ‘Stash’ at Killington, Northstar and other resorts. A terrain park nestled in the woods, made out of natural material. Plattekill has some of the most extreme mountain bike terrain on the east, and if designed, and built right could be used by both riders/skiers and bikers. There are a ton of sponsors that would get behind a project like this. You could have workers volunteer for lift tickets, or whatnot. I commend Plattekill for giving us a terrain park, but compaired to other resorts in the catskills it is sub-par. A natural terrain park is something that no other resort around has, and would draw people to platty from all over. It’s time to get creative, Plattekill has the potential. A project like this would separate Plattekill from the other resorts, by offering terrain and an experience exclusive to Platty. Thank you.

  9. A well written piece by Laszlo. As I have stated many times there is no way in heck that any bank would loan money to Bell for this half cocked business plan. A private company would be laughed out of the bank in the current environment asking for $74 million. The jobs numbers are totally over stated – this project is the Catskills version of a bridge to nowhere.

    The only way it would seem to protect a private ski area such as his would be to force Bell to offer some type of joint or multiday lift ticket pricing or promo. Or have Bell advertise other ski areas for free on thier trail map and in lodge. Not fair to Bell but then nothing Bell is doing is fair to private tax paying business around them.

  10. Laszlo, Keep up the good fight!
    You have a great hill.I had a few storm days ripping those sweet thousand feet.
    Have you ever considered renting the hill midweek?
    Turner Mountain Mt. Operates fri-sun and is available on Thursdays.l believe most Thursdays are rented.
    Are PowderDaze profitable?
    Best wishes fighting Albany.

  11. Hey Laz, just get people to ski once by you and they will be back. Everyone I “drag” to platty ends up loving it. Gov’t doesn’t play fair and never will. I spread the word every chance I can (even yesterday) keep up the good fight!

  12. Mr Vajtay are you against the state spending any money on Belleayre or is it the size of this amount that seems wrong to you?

  13. Not sure about Laszlo but IMO $74M is an insane amount to spend on Bell

    I doubt a private business could raise $5M in debt to improve a habitual money losing business like Bell. $74M what are they smoking down there. That is nuts.

  14. Laz keep living the dream, Plattie is awesome. We ski all over the Northeast and do our best at spreading the news about this gem hidden in the Catskills.

  15. I luv to see all the Whitefece and Gore peeps lookin down their noses at Belleayre. As if those two mountains didnt put every other Adirondack ski area out of bizness.

  16. Belleayre was sited here for its economic development potential to offset some of the negative impacts of this area being in the NYC watershed and all of the restrictions and land acquisition that brought. In the beginning it was a success by all measures. The project was never meant to produce profit for the state; the payoff was in the economic impact it would have on the area through increased tourism, sales tax, payroll, etc circulating through the local economy. The goal is the same now.

    The existence of Plattekill, as well as Hunter and Windham, is because the state essentially created the ski business here.

    Time has moved on and skiers demand more. Belleayre has suffered from lack of investment and attention from the DEC for decades.

    Any time the state can invest 70 mill and generate 400mill of private equity it is a good deal for the taxpayer. Plattekill, Hunter and Windham should stop trying to fight over a small pie and should focus on increasing the size of the pizza. Hunter and Windham both have had major expansions of their real estate and lodging facilities without hurting each other. Their growth came from attracting new skiers. So too will it be here. 320,000 skier visits is conservative. We are 2.5 hours from the largest, wealthiest concentration of skiers the country. A revitalized, first class Belleayre will make Plattekill boom.

  17. I’m a long time skier at Plattekill. It is my first choice for day trips. The place has been upgraded every year and big kudos to you and your family, and your team for keeping the place operating at a high level.

    I disagree with some of your comments. When you bought Plattekill in the early 1990s Belleayre was a long established ski area owned by NYS. The first 10 years of your ownership Belleayre was really neglected by NYS. You complain about NYS putting money into Belleayre by adding the fixed grip quad and then the high speed quad along with some much needed snowmaking and facilities upgrades. What should NYS do with its valuable asset? Belleayre cannot be sold. Should it remain in its 1975 form forever? You upgraded from the T-bar to a double chair, added better snowmaking, improved your grooming equipment, enlarged your snowmaking pond, should Belleayre not be allowed to improve like you have?

    As I write this another summer goes by and there are no lifts being installed and no new trails being cut at Belleayre. The $74 million number remains a fantasy. Maybe if NYS was upgrading Belleayre a little bit every year for the last 20 years (like you do) this $74 million number would not exist. As a long time skier and property owner near Gore I can tell you that NYS has a long history of turning planned high speed quads into used triples. I’d be shocked if NYS spends the $74 million.

    I like the idea of a loan for Plattekill, but I do not think NYS should be loaning money to Hunter or Windham. How would we draw that line?

    I think that the Belleayre expansion and the real estate development will be a huge help to the region and will be a big help for you. While the Highmount terrain will be a welcome addition to Belleayre, it still cannot come close to your terrain. Getting more people into the region will introduce Plattekill to more people.

    Trust your excellent mountain. Maybe you could run a special first time visitor ticket deal. I have no doubt that that is all it would take to build a lifetime Plattekill customer (like me).

  18. That would be a great scenario, X.

    My main concern besides the public/private landscape lies with the extra traffic on Route 28.

    If a partial point of the park is, as Tom White notes, to protect the reservoirs, how will they handle the extra vehicular traffic and erosion? It also just seems out of character to have something of that scale at Belleayre. As a skier, I want to also ski Highmount, but as a hiker and enjoyer of the outdoors, I way prefer trees to subdivisions. Then again, people do need jobs, like the ones that Laszlo provides, that don’t come from Uncle Sam.

    The plot is clearly very thick with all of this stuff and I don’t think it would ever pass muster without the state acting as partial developer.

    I love Plattekill and the entire Catskills region. I’d hate to see any long term negative repercussions for anyone by moving carelessly. With or without the development the ORDA pass is already one of the greatest values in the northeast, and that value does come from some amount of subsidy from us taxpayers.

    I also wish there was a little more transparency from Cuomo and Schumer. They clearly know what’s happening here because it’s very important, but they are entirely silent on the matter.

  19. Great points ml.
    I too like x’s idea for 1st timers.
    I will be one this season for sure.
    Laszlo, keep up the good work!
    It sure sounds like the real deal.

  20. One thing I haven’t seen mentioned is the lack of ANY decent terrain at Bel. It’s either slightly steep at the top for a very short distance or almost flat the rest of the way. Maybe nice for beginners and families with small kids but after skiing there on a $10 ticket last winter and then skiing Platty the next day on a $10 ticket I wouldn’t even consider going back to Bel if they gave me a ticket. I would absolutely go back to Platty and pay the regular price. Much better terrain.I also, dare I say it like the vibe of Platty better. I’m not sure if the expansion will address the terrain issue but all in all I don’t really see what you can do to improve the terrain much. I’m all for choices and more places to ski but thats alot of money with very suspect and overly optimistic projections for skier visits. Seems like a huge waste of money to me.

  21. Belleayre’s best terrain is on the east (Highmount) and west sides (Cathedral Glen all the way down to Pine Hill). It’s not lift-served because Bel hasn’t received the piles of money for terrain expansion that Whiteface and Gore have over the years.

  22. Laz, I was a first timer last year. I plan to be back because I had one of my best ski days last year and loved your mountain. Keep fighting so real ski enthusiasts can continue to show up at your door.

  23. A few years ago on a day off from teaching at Hunter I went to your ski area. Since that day I can’t find a reason to ski anywhere else in the Catskills but Plattekill. Best of luck with this nonsense going on over at Bellayre. See you when the snow flies.

  24. Awesome and well spoken. Why not put some money into growing the ski business for the entire Catskill region. Advertising and marketing would not only profit the ski areas but all of the surrounding businesses. Fortunately we are blessed with a few great family owned and operated ski areas left, Plattekill on the top of that list who work hard for every dollar they make and without a handout. Where else can you go in the Catskills, ski an 1100 foot vertical and unwind with a beer by the wood stove and know it is because of a handful of people who put their heart and soul into your ski experience made it happen. Don’t think you will find that just anywhere. Handouts don’t create a good experience, blood, sweat and tears do. Rock on Laszlo, Plattekill is where fairy trails are made.

  25. I love Platty. I pass Bell all the time and keep driving. The extra 20 minutes is so worth it. This past year when I got to Margaretville to meet a friend 2 people pulled up to me lost asking for directions to Bell, I let them know but really my mind was like why go their when your by this great place. I think a lot of people don’t realize how much Platty improved over the years. When ever I talk about the place it seems people memories are from 30 years ago. So maybe some advertising on radio and bigger newer signs on 28 by Bell would help. NY state has some of the most corrupt politicians of all the states, and spending this kind of money should be considered unfair business practice, it really is a shame to see what is going on, I will keep going past Bell to get to Platty, but a lot people need to do that too.

  26. I’ve skied both since early 80’s, Plattekill has always been the better hill, although I thought Highmount was decent. Keep pushing forward, the changes in past years have been quite nice. I’d suggest some marketing towards Syracuse area, everyone I have dragged down there is a fan (and many did used to go to Belleayre as they gave out free tickets in past years at the New York state fair). Also, clear some more of the woods to left of North Face where bike trails are and snow holds well, and run that down the mountain farther with a cheap surface lift for return. We ski there most every year, glad you took over years ago.

  27. Agree with most everything in this thread. We’ve been making our powder pilgrimages to Plattekill for quite some time, and it’s great to see the continued grassroots support.

    As another person commented above- is there a way to “prune” more of the woods to create some more marked glade runs? I mean, during powerdaize- I don’t really even pay attention to trail names because most of the time I’m not actually on a trail 🙂 But perhaps to clear out some more of the underbrush and death-rocks and fallen timber, could make you guys even more epic than you are then the snow falls.

    Again, I know nothing of the environmental/conservationist side of this stuff- so it may not be possible- but just a thought.

    Work like that could be done volunteer style as well. I know there are enough of us who love the terrain who would love to come help one summer to clear our magical tree lines for the winter 🙂

    Keep it up, Lazlo!


  28. I skied Plattekill from the late 60’s to the 80’s when Bonnie and Gary owned the mountain. After getting very tired of the short Catskill winters I moved on and ski every weekend in VT at Killington. Back in the day I skied Highmount. Highmount would be a very nice addition to Belleayre and do believe that it would have an impact on Plattekill skier visits. Eventually Plattekill will become better known as a great bike resort. Might be hard to operate as a ski area.

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