ORDA puts state millions to work on winter sports venue upgrades
Some overhauls needed for 2023 World University Games; others for revenue, long-term sustainability
LAKE PLACID — The state Olympic Regional Development Authority plans to start upgrading multiple winter sports venues this summer.
In the past two years, ORDA has received $80 million in state money for capital improvements to winter sports venues it runs. Last month, Gov. Andrew Cuomo proposed investing another $80 million into ORDA for capital improvements.
If the state Legislature approves the $80 million, ORDA CEO Mike Pratt said the authority would certainly need more next year to finish its venue upgrades, but he wasn’t sure how much it would take. ORDA traditionally receives $12.5 million from the state each year for maintenance.
Enterprise and Lake Placid News journalists sat down with Pratt, ORDA Vice President of Marketing and Sales Scott Christiansen and Communications Director Jon Lundin Tuesday to get an update on the venue improvements and what exactly the allocated and proposed money would go toward.
ORDA venues included sites such as the Olympic Jumping Complex (technically owned by the town of North Elba), the Olympic Center and Speedskating Oval (also owned by the town, although part of the Oval is on school district property), and the Olympic Sports Complex and Cross Country and Biathlon Center at Mount Van Hoevenberg. It also operates the three ski centers at Whiteface, Belleayre and Gore mountains in Wilmington, Highmount and North Creek, respectively.
Many of the venues date back to the 1980 Winter Olympics and some date back to the 1932 games. International sports standards, Americans with Disability Act requirements and casual tourism preferences have changed in the past 87 years. Plus, there’s just been natural wear and tear on the venues in that time.
Also, the venue upgrades are partly to prepare for the 2023 Winter World University Games (also known as the Winter Universiade), which will invite 2,500 student-athletes and delegates to the North Country for winter sports competition. ORDA officials hope the upgrades will facilitate year-round casual tourism and national and international competitions for decades to come.
Mt. Van Ho
In February 2018, members of the International University Sports Federation (FISU), the Universiade governing body, toured multiple ORDA and collegiate venues to see if they could handle hosting the competition. They were generally impressed but recognized that the cross-country skiing and biathlon facilities at Mount Van Hoevenberg would need an overhaul. So that’s first on ORDA’s list of priorities, with construction expected to start this spring.
“The biathlon and Nordic center has no ability to host major events,” Pratt said.
He expects the improvement to cost roughly $40 million to $50 million and take about two years to complete.
One of the larger projects will be a new stadium, which would be able to host competitions at the World Cup and International Biathlon Union levels. The trails connecting to the stadium would be smaller so that skiers can loop by crowds and audiences more often.
Pratt likes to use the metaphor that today’s biathlon loops are like petals on a flower, always coming back to the center.
“We’ve had conversations with all the disciplines of sport and the United States Olympic Committee, and all the national governing bodies have been exited to hear what our plans are. Both FIS (International Ski Federation) and the IBU have been involved with the layout of our new trails and stadium.”
Christiansen and Lundin added that working with sport governing bodies relates to every venue project in the works.
“This is not something that we would go out on our own with,” Lundin said. “There are stakeholders, and we certainly need their input, their ideas, their forethought as well.”
Pratt suggested the upgraded venue would be a major draw for teams looking to train, including from Canada and other countries.
“There’s no question about it,” Pratt said. “It’s going to be desired. The elevation of Lake Placid matches up nicely with some of the major European spots.”
ORDA also plans to add a “mountain coaster” for recreation, a second coaster for transport, more cross-country ski trails, a new ski lodge and welcome center, an 8 million gallon snowmaking reservoir and storage structure, updated lighting systems and trailheads that would connect to Cascade, Porter and Pitchoff mountains, moving these extremely popular trailheads off busy state Route 73.
The ski jump upgrades and expansion also has a target date of completion before the 2023 Universiade. The first priority, Pratt said, is to install refrigerated frost rail systems on the inruns of the 90- and 120-meter jumps, and regrade the landing hills. That is expected to be done this summer, he said.
Pratt said the cost for the ski jumps would be about $3 million.
Pratt said ORDA’s second priority is to upgrade the chairlift at the jumps and install a zip-line for recreation. Other planned improvements are lower priority such as building a new 70-meter jump.
At Whiteface, much of the focus will be on repairing stone buildings at the top of Veterans Memorial Highway; However, this can be a difficult task because the mountain’s extreme weather leaves a short window of opportunity for construction, Pratt said.
“The elements have deteriorated the masonry integrity, so it’s a lot of repairs,” he said. “We once went to replace a simple window and found that many of the metal ties in the interior mason wall had rusted through and we almost lost the entire side of the castle.”
The elevator from the top of the highway to the mountain’s summit, which is about 80 years old, has been replaced with an ADA-compliant car, and the tunnel leading to the elevator has gone through asbestos and lead paint abatement. The elevator has been closed since fall 2017 and is expected to reopen this Memorial Day weekend, Pratt said.
Belleayre and Gore
ORDA plans to expand its Discovery Lodge at Belleayre this summer. This is where all the rental and novice lessons are conducted. According to the Belleayre website, “the renovations will change the flow of how skiers approach the newly expanded Catskill Thunder Gondola loading area and will also help with the traffic flow, eliminating any bottlenecking. Additional drainage has also been added in front of the lodge which will quickly disperse any runoff from the slopes.”
At Gore, Pratt said ORDA plans to expand some trail systems and modify its snowmaking capabilities.
The Olympic Center of Main Street contains three ice rinks, the Lake Placid Olympic Museum and the ORDA administrative offices. They haven’t gotten any permits yet, but Pratt said ORDA is in the planning phase, and the OC is in desperate need of renovation.
“Over the years, ORDA’s administration has had to take up space, valuable space that has impacted the programming and impacted the guest experience in this facility,” he said.
“The goal is to evict ourselves,” he added. “I want these offices here all the way down to the ’80 Rink to be food and beverage and retail. We want the customers to come in and be able to use these windows with the beautiful views.”
Pratt said the finance department currently takes up space in one of the hockey arena’s locker rooms. There have been times when teams were sent back to their hotels because ORDA didn’t have enough locker rooms to spare.
It’s not clear yet where the administrative offices would go, but ORDA has been in casual talks with North Elba town officials to build an expansion to the U.S. Olympic Training Center on the grounds of the old Adirondack Medical Center at Lake Placid on Church Street.
ORDA would also like to modify the hockey arenas so that they can easily change size, giving them the ability to host figure skating, hockey and short-track speedskating.
Pratt said the oval needs upgrades, too, saying the pipes and refrigeration have been somewhat problematic and unreliable.
“With the oval, it’s a little trickier than traditional engineering,” he said. “It’s a forensic effort. An outlet from Mirror Lake runs from a culvert right underneath the oval.”
For the past few decades, speedskating, both long-track and short-track, have been held inside, but Pratt and Lundin said athletes are moving back toward outside rinks for long-track.
“The speedskating community would prefer (competitions) to be outdoor,” Pratt said.
Though it’s not technically ORDA’s project, curling is a required aspect of the Universiade, and ORDA has offered some guidance. A curling center for Saranac Lake was proposed during the bid process for the Universiade. Saranac Lake Mayor Clyde Rabideau has proposed building a new curling center, but Pratt said he isn’t sure where that project is at. As a backup, Pratt said ORDA has spoken with the Saranac Lake Civic Center on ways to best modernize the facility and possibly add more curling sheets. Its existing rink is big enough for four sheets.
“Ideally we’d have six, but we can just have a longer curling competition with four, and it would be OK,” Pratt said.
Pratt also said state-allocated ORDA funds would not pay for the curling center.
In terms of necessities for the Universiade, Pratt said ORDA is on track with its venues, and that housing and transportation are probably going to be the more difficult aspects.
“The fallback plan would be hotels,” Pratt said, “but we’re looking at different options for athletes villages and trying to prioritize those conversations right now.”
Much of the talk surrounding these venue upgrades has pertained to attracting tourists and new competitions, but in Lake Placid, some long-term residents — including town Supervisor Roby Politi — have said it feels like the sense of community has diminished in recent years. What’s in this project for the local? “There are many businesses that make their money from the tourist industry and welcoming visitors,” said Pratt, who was born and raised in Lake Placid. “Our events are branded in the tourism message. Our recreational pass holders and day-ticket holders are spending money around the area. The effects are indirectly felt just through sales tax revenue, but directly, a lot of people are making their money and their salaries related to what we’re doing.
“I think we’re an important piece of the puzzle. I think we’re a good neighbor and not just trying to be the 900-pound gorilla. We’re members of the community.”
Other than construction jobs, Pratt said ORDA is hoping the year-round tourism created by the upgrades will require more employment opportunities. There are about 500 year-round ORDA employees and 1,500 during the ski season, Pratt said. Those numbers include Belleayre and Gore, too.
Not all Olympic cities, both summer and winter, have kept their facilities viable the way Lake Placid has.
The nonprofit group that runs the 1988 Winter Olympic Venues in Calgary, Alberta, recently announced it would decommission its sliding track. Sarajevo, Bosnia and Herzegovina, which held the games only four years after Lake Placid, is basically a winter sports graveyard.
Christiansen and Lundin said Lake Placid is the model for how to carry on a legacy and make facilities viable long after hosting the Olympic Games. Pratt suggested that Lake Placid isn’t necessarily modeling itself after or competing with other Olympic cities, but rather just looking to improve itself and continue to host major events.
“Our hope is to continue to do this for the next 40 years,” he said.