How much longer can New York taxpayers continue to subsidize ski centers at Whiteface and Gore Mountain?
The way funding from state and local taxpayers has been declining in recent years, probably not much longer.
State tax revenue is foundering, legislative support for the public authority that operates the facilities has been waning, and local communities that traditionally provide support are struggling just to balance their budgets. Rather than have the facilities limp along with declining public income and risk having them degrade for lack of funding for maintenance, upgrades or expansion, it's time for state officials to rethink the financial and ownership model that has sustained them for the past 30 years.
The Olympic Regional Development Authority (ORDA) operates not only the Whiteface ski center in Wilmington and the Gore Mountain ski area in North Creek, but also the site of the 1980 Olympic Winter Games, the Olympic Center, the Olympic Jumping Complex and Olympic Sports Complex in Lake Placid. These are vitally important tourist attractions, generating tens of millions of dollars each year in business revenue, sales tax and occupancy tax money. Their continued operation and maintenance is vital to the state and regional economies.
In recent years, state taxpayers have invested more than $70 million in ORDA facilities, money that's gone for chair-lifts and gondolas, a bobsled/luge track and a convention center in Lake Placid.
Such large and expensive facilities are only going to require more state money to remain viable in the future. And that's where the danger lies in maintaining the current organization and revenue sources.
ORDA has an annual budget of $30 million, with the state contributing about 15 percent and revenues from the facilities making up the rest. Its funding has come under assault during the past several years. In 2008-09, the state contributed $7 million to ORDA operations. That amount has dropped to $4.6 million this year.
A state Assembly proposal would have eliminated all of ORDA's funding for this year, but the full Legislature restored all but $1 million. Next year, Albany might not be in a position to be even that generous.
Gov. Andrew Cuomo on Friday warned that next year's state budget deficit is likely to top $2 billion, following the historic closure of a $10 billion budget deficit earlier this year. State tax revenues are off from earlier projections, which means the state is going to have to move taxpayer money around to ensure that vital state services are protected.
Local funding for support of the ORDA facilities is also in jeopardy. With a 2 percent property tax cap going into effect this year, local communities are going to have a more difficult time justifying financial support for these state-run facilities. Already, the town of North Elba, which includes the village of Lake Placid, is considering withholding its $150,000 annual contribution because of the tax cap.
It's questionable whether the state should even be in the business of operating ski centers, which tend to do better when private investors use their money to invest in upgrades that help sell tickets and boost profits. A private operator is also likely to be more creative in making the winter facilities more viable year-round, which would boost the economic development fortunes of the communities in which they're located. The Gore Mountain ski center essentially closes down when the snow stops flying, making it worthless for most of the year as a revenue-generator and as an economic development attraction for Johnsburg and Warren County. Whiteface has been more successful in grabbing the shoulder season crowd, particularly marketing the facility for bicycle events. But it remains mostly a seasonal ski center.
Lake Placid is a completely unique animal. As the site of two Olympics, including the famous Miracle on Ice in 1980, the village and its Olympic facilities are a destination akin to an historic site like Liberty Island or Fenway Park.
The Olympic history alone brings in millions of visitors and tourist dollars. In addition, Lake Placid and its facilities are a working training site for winter athletes and a functioning venue for dozens of youth and adult sports tournaments.
The state might be able to sell off some of the revenue-producing training facilities and retain the historic Olympic venues. Or it may retain both and market them together.
We're sure others can come up with creative ideas to ensure that these facilities remain viable without having to rely on a dwindling pool of taxpayer money.
It's clear that the system set up 30 years ago to support these facilities is breaking down.
For the sake of the Adirondack economy and for the towns and counties that thrive on the successful operation of these venues, a different approach is needed.
Local editorials represent the opinion of The Post-Star editorial board, which consists of Publisher Rick Emanuel, Editor Ken Tingley, Editorial Page Editor Mark Mahoney and citizen representative Charlotte Potvin.
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