Will a NY State-Run Ski Area Become Part of a Private Destination Resort?
Written by Roger Wall
Since the late 1990’s when it first unveiled plans for hotels and golf courses on either side of New York state’s most southerly public ski area, Belleayre Mountain Ski Center in the Catskill Park, developer Crossroads Ventures has eyed Belleayre as one of its primary “amenities” to sell real estate (time shares) and attract hotel guests to its proposed Belleayre Resort.
Belleayre was an unlikely candidate in the 1990’s to become part of a mega-resort. It was considered a rustic, family-friendly ski area that historically championed beginners and intermediates, the cheaper, less glamorous public cousin of neighboring commercial areas Hunter Mountain and Ski Windham.
But ambitious expansion plans and promises to the developer could now transform the public Belleayre into one of several playgrounds the Resort would need to attract an affluent clientele to fill its 4- and 5-star rooms.
Both the Resort and the Ski Center are in the middle of what may be the beginning of the last environmental review on the path to ground breaking for the Resort and renovations for the Ski Center.
The first review of the Resort took place in 2004. Strong opposition and environmental issues brought the process to a standstill. Then, in 2007 an Agreement in Principle (AIP) between the developer and many of the environmental groups eliminated one high elevation golf course and 143 lodging units. The state bought this eastern parcel of land on Belleayre Mountain and added it to the state’s Forest Preserve, land that is constitutionally guaranteed to be Forever Wild.
The 2007 AIP also made vague promises to expand the state’s Ski Center in a way that would allow the developer to connect his property to ski trails for highly desirable ski-in, ski-out lodging.
With Resort plans east of the Ski Center nixed, the lodging and golf course to the west grew—now two hotels, spas, retail, 18 holes of golf plus a driving range, fractional lodging units. The whole package totals 629 lodging units, larger than the two Catskill hamlets closest to the proposed mountainside resort. It’s a big-time corporate plan looking down at mom and pop businesses in the hamlets.
For many years, critics have considered the resort plans delusional, the product of one man’s ego. But this is the kernel of most resort developments, successful or not, and the Belleayre Resort is no exception. Unfortunately, the state’s plans to expand the Ski Center have not resisted the tug of fantasy, either.
In keeping with the outlines of the AIP promises, the expansion, like the resort, leans toward the western slopes of Belleayre. Although the overall skier visits in the northeast and at Belleayre are flat, the state wants to boost its attendance from a 13-year average of 152,357 to 320,000. How? By building a larger base lodge, adding parking, and cutting new western trails, half of them on the defunct Highmount Ski Area that the developer owns and wants the state to buy—for a rumored $5 million.
Like the supporters of the Belleayre Resort, who at the most recent public hearing on May 29, 2013, wore tee-shirts that said, “Build It and They Will Come,” the state also seems to share a “field of dreams” philosophy of economic development.
The Ski Center build out is priced at $74 million, but costs aren’t spelled out, neither are cost-benefit analyses, nor are four-season recreational opportunities explored. The plans seem weighed to benefit the private resort developer’s plans to offer ski-in, ski-out lodging.
The Catskill Heritage Alliance is a grassroots community environmental group. We didn’t sign the 2007 AIP. We still think the resort’s size poses environmental threats to the hamlets downhill of the resort and, with more rooms than the market can absorb, economic threats to the regional lodging market and local businesses.
This spring we hired Alpentech mountain planning and ski resort development consultants to take a look at the draft Unit Management Plan for Belleayre. What they saw raised concerns: A base lodge-centric design that causes poor skier circulation and increases the likelihood of collisions as it funnels skiers through busy trail intersections and down into the beginner area to the base lodge–or ends steep runs in short run outs. The West Side and Highmount trails would exacerbate this design problem.
Lacking from the UMP was consideration of new ski terrain on the eastern slopes of the Ski Center. But here Alpentech was able to map out longer trails than available on the western slopes, with greater vertical on moderate terrain suitable to Belleayre’s core market, the intermediate skier. An existing unmaintained trail could also be brought into greater use with snowmaking. And further down the mountain, a steep ravine offers the perfect site for a summer zip line, a type of feature many ski areas are using to attract customers in the no to low snow months. Visitors to the adjacent hamlet of Pine Hill could access the zip line by an existing hiking trail. The East Side terrain would also connect better with the current trail network and allow mid-mountain and summit lodges to be accessed easily, eliminating the need for advanced skiers to schuss through novice areas for lunch.
The benefit to the public is clear: no expensive purchase of private land is required for new trails, with one less lift and fewer acres of snowmaking the operational costs would be lower, all season recreation is added to Belleayre’s offerings, and skier flow patterns to existing mid-mountain and summit lodges would be preserved.
Development of the East Side instead of the western slopes would, however, conflict with the developer’s own hopes to tie his resort into the state Ski Center for ski-in, ski-out lodging. There’s the rub.
Critics of New York state’s ownership of three ski areas (two in the Adirondacks and Belleayre in the Catskills, all managed by the Olympic Regional Development Authority), from time to time argue that the state shouldn’t be in the ski business at all. Local private ski area owners often point out that Belleayre’s state subsidy creates unfair competition. While perhaps both arguments can be debated, the one before us, now, should the state be in the business of expanding a public ski area to benefit a private developer, has a simple answer: No. It won’t serve the public well and would be a misuse of taxpayer money.
For more information on both the Belleayre Mountain Ski Center’s Unit Management Plan and the proposed private Belleayre Resort, see the Catskill Heritage Alliance website. You can sign CHA’s petition for a lower-build ski center and resort at http://tinyurl.com/d4bj6k6.
Bio: Roger Wall skins up Belleayre Mountain from his house in Pine Hill. He’s a member of the Catskill Heritage Alliance and served as its chairperson from 2010 to 2012.