Editor’s Note: This article originally ran on April 20th. The topic has generated significant on-going discussion that many readers may have missed.
On June 21, 2011, the Lake Placid, NY’s Olympic Regional Development Authority (ORDA) inaugurated its new convention center with an open house. The soaring stone and metal exterior contrasts with the aging utilitarian lodges at Mount van Hoevenberg, site of the cross-country and biathlon events in the 1980 Winter Olympics.
Mount van Hoevenberg’s modest stadium saw the closest finish ever in a ski race. One one-hundredth of a second separated Juha Mieto from Thomas Wassberg and gold in the 1980 15 k men’s race.
Originally intended as a temporary structure, the cross-country lodge is still in use 31 years after the Games. The last of the Olympic-era snow cats has given up the ghost, and in the winter of 2010-2011 much grooming was done on snowmobiles.
The conference center was financed with $20 million set aside by governor George Pataki as his term ended. By contrast, the biggest expenditures at Mount van Hoevenberg (van Ho) for 2010 – 2011 were trail maintenance and purchase of a “low impact grooming implement.”
New convention center aside, van Ho is competing for scant funding with ORDA’s other facilities. Gore Mountain needs to replace snow cats and snowmaking equipment. Whiteface is looking to rehabilitate the upper portion of one of their ski lifts.
In addition to the skiing and sliding venues at Mount van Hoevenberg, ORDA also manages the Whiteface alpine ski area, the ski jumps, and the Olympic Training Center. Although it’s owned by the town, ORDA operates the Olympic Center skating arenas in the middle of Lake Placid. In 1984, ORDA took over operation of the Gore Mountain alpine area.
While ORDA manages van Ho, the facility is owned by the New York state Department of Environmental Conservation (DEC), part of a complex tangle of relationships between ORDA and various state and municipal entities.
Part of ORDA’s agreement with the DEC is the Unit Management Plan (UMP), a blueprint for van Ho’s development. Written in 1986 and updated periodically since then, the UMP calls for replacement of the cross-country lodge with a building double the size, aimed at elite and developing athletes. The current biathlon lodge would be replaced with a building geared towards recreational skiers. Other improvements in the UMP include new grooming equipment, a bridge at a critical intersection, widening of two tunnels, installation of snow fencing and improvement of the trails to current FIS standards.
Of the listed improvements, only the homologation process is underway. In the winter of 2011-2012, ORDA moved a snow cat from Whiteface to van Ho.
FOR ELITE ATHLETES, TOUGH TO TRAIN AND RACE
Saint Lawrence University (SLU) hosts their Winter Carnival at van Ho on the third weekend in January. Years ago, their race loops used the challenging trails on the cross-country side of the property. When the third Monday in January became a holiday, SLU had to compete with tourists, and they raced on the rolling terrain of the biathlon section.
Ethan Townsend, SLU’s head nordic ski coach, agreed with a writer who suggested that elite ski racing isn’t a priority for ORDA.
“That seems to be the case,” he said, adding, “I think in the last few years it’s gotten better. I don’t know if that’s because of internal changes in ORDA or because Margaret Maher (New York Ski Education Foundation cross-country coach) has been there long enough to have a bit more clout.”
Maher did not reply to an email seeking comment.
“Running our events has gotten significantly better in the last 3 to 5 years that she [Maher] has been there. They relaxed on using the whole cross-country side a couple years ago so we were able to use the Ladies’ 5k [1980 women’s relay loop] for at least the Friday event. They haven’t wanted to do that for Saturday. They still cite wanting to keep it open for the general public and not have them feel like they can’t use it. There was some compromise there and that was good to see.”
Short video of women’s relay, 1980:
Around 200 trail passes are sold on an average mid-winter Saturday, according to ORDA public relations coordinator Jon Lundin.
Biathlete Sara Studebaker has lived and trained at Lake Placid’s Olympic Training Center for four years. While she spends most of her winter on the World Cup, she does get skiing as well as dryland training in at van Ho.
Studebaker appreciates the ski community and the training opportunities in Lake Placid, but she evinced frustration regarding the skiing. Van Ho’s grooming may appear adequate to citizen racers, she said, but it wasn’t always adequate for elite athletes.
“I know there’s been frustration” regarding grooming, Studebaker told FasterSkier.
“Some of the grooming makes training nearly impossible. There’s a lack of understanding of what our training is like and what we need from ORDA.” She said that skiing into the biathlon range is problematic because the trail must be packed down hard.
“I got the sense last year from Margaret that grooming was a bit better,” said Townsend. “She felt they were using the big Pisten Bully a bit more if they had one available to them, and not just grooming with snowmobiles. If you’re only going to use a Tidd Tech and a snowmobile, we’ve got more than that here at [the SLU training center].”
“When you put that big down pressure from a Pisten Bully on a course, you get better grooming and better skiing,” Townsend added.
Studebaker said, “The guys [grooming Mt van Ho] are doing the best they can with [the equipment] they have.”
A modest snowfall doesn’t pose any grooming challenges. But a big storm or slushy conditions are challenging.
RETURN TO INTERNATIONAL STANDARDS?
“There’s absolutely no reason why they can’t have a world class venue [at Mt van Hoevenberg],” said local skier Pat Gallagher.
In 1980, Gallagher was a course steward at the Winter Olympics. Now, his daughter skis in NYSEF’s junior program. He believes that the facilities at van Ho have deteriorated to a point where ORDA has to spend money.
Gallagher began attending ORDA board meetings in 2009, “trying to get a sense of what meetings were like.” In 2010, he asked to talk at a meeting. Speaking before the board, and later meeting with ORDA CEO Ted Blazer, Gallagher asked for three things: purchase of a new snow cat, homologation of ski trails to FIS standards, and the formation of a citizens’ group.
Advocating for van Ho, Gallagher said he focused on things politicians like to hear, such as increased tax revenue and job creation. He told FasterSkier, “People-powered sports play right into what’s happening right now with ‘The Last Child in the Woods’ phenomenon and the obesity epidemic. It’s not ORDA’s mandate to run conventions.”
In addition to van Ho’s aging physical plant, ORDA faces other challenges. ORDA is dependent on state funding for approximately 20% of its budget. New York’s $9 billion budget deficit has meant reduced funding in the last few years.
At their June 21 board meeting, ORDA reported that their fiscal year ended with a $13.7 million loss, despite increased revenues and aggressive cost-cutting. (The loss is less than the previous year’s $18 million loss.) In addition to reduced state aid, ORDA’s bank has reduced its line of credit, leaving it less flexibility.
Because of the reduced line of credit, Blazer said, ORDA deferred maintenance at all their facilities. For example, a Gore employee explained that two of their snow machines had been used to twice their normal life expectancy.
In his board presentation, Blazer said ORDA’s mission is to “bring more business to the region. That’s what we’re about.”
A PowerPoint presentation recapping the year’s marketing efforts primarily featured Whiteface Mountain, with some slides of tourists ice skating and bobsledding.
Last year, ORDA declined an opportunity to host world cup biathlon races at Mount van Hoevenberg in 2011 due to budget uncertainty. Blazer cited the reduced line of credit as the reason that they declined hosting the races.
Blazer explained, “We had to put in too much money up front to host that event. We couldn’t float the money on a line of credit with the risk if we lost one event, during that completion, we would have lost $120,000 in television revenue.”
“They want to call this a world class facility, but then they declined having the biathlon World Cup,” Studebaker said.
“The trails aren’t licensable in their current state,” said USBA president Max Cobb in June. While he felt that the course profiles were acceptable, “In many areas, they’re not wide enough.”
Greg Stratford, assistant manager of the Olympic Sports Complex (van Ho and the nearby sliding track) and the jumping complex, said that the trails in question for the IBU races have been widened and are “ready to go for world cup caliber competition.” For him, a bigger challenge with the biathlon world cup “was the amount of infrastructure change that was proposed under the financial constraints that we had.”
The IBU sought improvements to the timing building and wax cabins with adequate ventilation.
“We were looking at spending around $180,000 in modifications,” Blazer explained. “I think the [IBU] television package was over $400,000, but you don’t see that until the events are over. You have to stage the event to get the money. We’ve had world cup biathlon before where we lost an event because we had too much snow. We lost $90,000 [snaps fingers] just like that.
“It was a risk I just couldn’t take because we lost $2.2 million off our state appropriation. We wanted to do it, but we couldn’t risk it.”
“ORDA was aware of the revenue possibilities and concluded it wasn’t viable for them,” said Cobb.
Asked how elite ski racing fits into ORDA’s plan for van Ho, Blazer replied, “We’re doing the homologation process right now. I can only tell you we’re addressing it so we can hold events in the future. If we wanted to hold an international event, we have to complete the process.”
Asked by e-mail if national championship and world cup ski races fit into ORDA’s plans, public relations coordinator Jon Lundin wrote “We’re always considering these type of events. But it’s dependent on the year and the event.”
ORDA has submitted eight different loops between three and eight k long for homologation. FIS homologation inspector Al Serrano visited van Ho over the summer and is reviewing their application.
According to Stratford, van Ho is “quite a ways” along in the homologation process and didn’t anticipate any hurdles. An ORDA spokesman wrote that “ORDA is now moving forward with [Serrano] on a formal homologation next summer.”
Serrano did not respond to an email requesting comment.
NEW LODGE A CHALLENGE
Linking homologated trails with a modern lodge, however, would be challenging. While the UMP calls for new lodges for both biathlon and cross-country, Stratford envisions a single new lodge.
“One of the problems is that if we build a new stadium, it would need to be suitable for both cross-country and biathlon,” said Stratford. “Each of the different sports that use our facilities has their own specifications and requests and wants and needs. We need to get everybody together to determine what would be the best scenario for Mt van Hoevenberg.”
“If you were to take both buildings and have them at one venue [spot] you’d be in a much better situation,” said Townsend. “The cross-country lodge is just not adequate for a big event.” The current cross-country lodge inadequate waxing facilities, bathrooms and power sources, but has a large general space. The biathlon lodge has plenty of wax rooms but no place for athletes to congregate.
Stratford pointed out that any new lodge has to be situated to take advantage of the updated trails. “Currently, our biathlon stadium is in a place where cross-country really can’t utilize it because the first A climb coming out of the stadium is too far away. The B climbs are OK, but the A climbs are too far away.”
While Blazer acknowledged plans to replace or improve the two lodges, he could not give a time when that might occur.
“It’s no simple nut to crack to pick up and move the biathlon stadium,” added Stratford.
In December 2011, Mount van Ho acquired a new Pisten Bully. Well, not exactly new. A hand-me-down from Whiteface, it’s unknown whether it saw any use during this low-snow winter. Greg Stratford did not respond to an e-mail request for comment on the snow cat and the status of trail homologation.
While juggling the needs of its existing facilities, ORDA is also poised to add another facility to its rosters.
Under next year’s proposed NY state budget, ORDA would take over management of Belleayre, a DEC-run alpine ski area in southern New York. Although it’s far from ORDA’s Lake Placid base, the move is proposed as a cost savings by the state. While Blazer said that ORDA’s goal would be to run Belleayre profitably, it lost $1 million in 2010.
Although the state’s appropriation to ORDA is about 15% higher than last year, those funds may go entirely to running Belleayre. The senate version of the budget bill stipulates that Belleayre operate “with a level of capital investment [so] that Belleayre can be operated, maintained, and improved in a similar manner to Whiteface and Gore.”
In addition to operating funds, the state also plans to appropriate $5 million to ORDA for capital improvements. New York budget division spokesman Morris Peters said that of that money, $1 million was earmarked for improvements at Belleayre.
“It’s premature to talk about” whether any funds were earmarked for improvements at Mount van Hoevenberg, Peters said.
If ORDA assumes management of Belleayre, one more facility will compete with Mount van Hoevenberg for scarce budget dollars.
— Topher Sabot contributed reporting.