In April of this year the New York State Department of Environmental Conservation (DEC) unveiled the most recent unit management plan (UMP) for Belleayre Ski Center. It included a recommendation for $74M in upgrades over the next several years. At the same time they released a revision of the environmental impact statement (EIS) for the Belleayre Resort development.
The UMP for the Belleayre Ski Center calls for the construction of three new lifts, refurbishing two others, cutting 16 new ski trails (primarily at Highmount) and upgrading the ski center’s snowmaking infrastructure. The plan also includes a new lodge, expansion of both the Discovery and Sunset Lodges and several parking lots.
In its current form, the Belleayre Resort project includes plans for two hotels, 270 hotel rooms, 250 fractional units and an 18-hole golf course. The most recent proposal is about half the size of the original and would be privately funded.
The EIS estimates that the Belleayre Resort would create 771 full-time and seasonal jobs with $25M in annual payroll. It’s also estimated that an additional 264 jobs would be created from the economic impact of the resort. Precise numbers aside, no one would argue the point: this public and private investment is going to produce economic development along the “Onteora Trail.”
There is some precedent for this kind of spending. Over the last several years, New York state’s other ski areas — Whiteface and Gore — have had significant investments. It’s likely that the proposed investment in Belleayre would also take place over time.
Belleayre and Skiing in the Catskills
Skiing has driven economic development in the Catskills since the mid-1930s. While the war slowed the growth of the sport, it regained economic importance in the early 1950s. Belleayre was a primary driver of activity.
Belleayre’s mission was to “offer in winter the same sort of inexpensive recreation that Jones Beach offers in the summer” and spur growth in rural areas. The ski center soon became a popular attraction that created jobs, and possibly even more important, long-term interest in lift-served skiing in the region.
The interest in skiing benefited communities beyond Pine Hill. In the 1960s there were dozens of ski areas in the Catskills. Many were small slopes with a single tow.
As the sport advanced, skiers grew to expect more vertical, infrastructure and amenities. The smaller ski areas struggled to compete, and many disappeared. By 1999 the Catskills had nine ski centers remaining. The “Big Three” — Hunter, Windham and Belleayre — continue to operate and have seen increased skier visits over the years. Of the “Little Six” — Bobcat, Highmount, Sawkill, Cortina and Scotch Valley have closed — only Plattekill remains.
In an important way, the Catskills are different from the Adirondacks. The Catskills have three viable private ski centers. Each area fills a unique niche, but the reality is that Hunter, Windham, Plattekill and Belleayre are partners and competitors in the economic engine of the region.
The proposed public investment in Belleayre — $74 million — is a big number and has generated some controversy:
“We love competition, but only on a level playing field. We don’t see spending taxpayer money on an expansion with a questionable ROI as a level playing field.”
—Chip Seamans, Windham Mountain Resort
No easy answers
We believe that the state should be sensitive to the competitive situation in the Catskills. While Belleayre requires long-term investment to remain viable, lawmakers should remember that part the state’s original mission for Belleayre was bring growth to the region.
The question remains: how can New York ensure that Belleayre has the infrastructure it requires to move ahead, without putting the other taxpaying employers behind?
We believe that the state has to plan and execute upgrades at Belleayre.
We also believe that New York could entertain proposals from the Catskills private ski areas for similar infrastructure investments. Successful proposals should be required to demonstrate the potential to create jobs in the region.
An independent review board could estimate each proposal’s viability and make approval recommendations. Approved proposals would be eligible for a publicly funded long-term low or no-interest loan. The initiative could improve competitiveness, encourage skier visits and create jobs in the state.
Delaware County especially could benefit from this idea. Plattekill stands out as the closest private area to any public area in the country. At the western edge of the Catskills, the mountain has to draw skiers past other larger areas. It’s the last of a breed of small family-owned businesses with no corporate backing. This kind of capital infusion could help ensure the employer’s ability to compete.
Clearly this simple sounding idea could be complex to execute. But development in the presence of the forest preserve often requires finesse and political will. It’s built into creating economic growth in the mix of public and private lands that uniquely define the mountains in New York.
Winter sports can continue to play an important role in maintaining economically viable communities in the Catskills and Adirondacks. To make it work we’ll need innovative ideas on how to balance public and private investment towards this goal. Post your ideas in the comments and speak out at the DEC events below.
DEC Input and Feedback Opportunities
The DEC is accepting comments on the Belleayre Resort EIS and the Belleayre Ski Center UMP through June 24, 2013.
The DEC will hold two public information sessions about the proposed projects in May. An informational presentation on the Belleayre Mountain Ski Center Unit Management Plan will be given at 7pm on May 22, 2013 in the Discovery Lodge at the Belleayre Ski Center on Route 28 in Highmount.
A public hearing on both the Belleayre Ski Center plan and the Belleayre Resort project will be held on May 29 at the Discovery Lodge, in two sessions beginning at 3pm and 6pm. Public comments on both projects will be taken.