Governor: $20M for Whiteface, Gore, Van Ho ‘mountain coaster’

People get ready to ski down Whiteface Mountain in December. (Enterprise photo — Justin A. Levine)

LAKE PLACID — In the wake of a warm winter and record financial losses, the state is pledging $20 million worth of upgrades to its winter sports facilities at Whiteface Mountain in Wilmington, Mount Van Hoevenberg in Lake Placid and Gore Mountain in North Creek.

The plan emphasizes year-round attractions. At Mount Van Hoevenberg — currently home of the state’s bobsled-luge-skeleton, cross-country skiing and biathlon venues — the state would finance construction of the longest “mountain coaster” in the United States. Whiteface Mountain Ski Center in Wilmington would get one of the longest zip lines in North America.

A mountain coaster is similar to a roller coaster in that bobsled or sled-like cars would travel on rail tracks installed on the surface of a mountain. On some mountain coasters, riders are able to control their car’s speed with a brake system. There are more than two dozen mountain coasters in the United States. The Thunderbolt Mountain Coaster at Berkshire East Ski Resort in Charlemont, Massachusetts, opened in 2014 as the longest one in North America at 5,450 feet, but Gov. Andrew Cuomo said the New York one would be longer than that.

While the governor’s office included the mountain coaster among the upgrades to Whiteface, it would actually be at Mount Van Hoevenberg, according to Jon Lundin, communications director for the Olympic Regional Development Authority, the state entity that runs the state’s winter sports facilties.

In an announcement Monday in Plattsburgh, Cuomo said Whiteface and Gore will get the funding because they aren’t good enough to compete globally. “Upscale amenities,” “conveniences” and “year-round attractions” were key phrases highlighted in the announcement.

U.S. bobsledders race down the track at Mount Van Hoevenberg outside Lake Placid in January 2016. (Enterprise photo — Justin A. Levine)

“New York state has Olympic-caliber assets and world-class skiing, but the facilities at Gore and Whiteface are outdated and sub-par,” the governor said in a press release. “This investment will transform these resorts into year-round, world-class skiing destinations and attract new skiers and snowboarders from around the globe.”

The money will also go to improvements to Whiteface’s existing infrastructure and facilities, including continuing expansion and renovation to the ski center’s main lodge and parking lot, expanding the Bear Den Learning Center to include a bar and restaurant, and installing a chairlift connecting the Bear Den to the Midstation.

Wilmington town Supervisor and Essex County Board of Supervisors Chairman Randy Preston was elated with Monday’s announcement, calling the planned improvements “long overdue” and describing the upgrades to Whiteface as making the ski center “more Adirondack-y.”

Preston said the zip line idea has been discussed for a couple of years. He said he’s as excited about this as he was in 2013, when the governor announced a $12 million investment to repave the Whiteface Veterans Memorial Highway.

“It’s absolutely forward thinking,” he said. “I am so happy to see this happening because the (ski center) lodge has been run down for years. That was built for the Olympics in 1980. It’s not an Adirondack-y warm feeling at all. And if we are going to compete in the marketplace, you have to have the facilities up to snuff.”

People walk up to Whiteface Mountain Ski Center's main lodge on its opening weekend in November. (Enterprise photo — Justin A. Levine)

The planned upgrades for Gore Mountain include expanding seating capacity and modernizing the Saddle Lodge’s facilities and infrastructure; adding a third story to the mountain’s Base Lodge; building corporate meeting room space, additional seating and customer amenities, and expanding the rental shop in the Northwoods Lodge; and restoring the original 1967 gondola unloading station into a Gore summit warming facility and overlook.

The governor’s release specifically mentioned Killington Ski Resort in Killington, Vermont, as a Northeast competitor that currently provides amenities and activities at a higher caliber than the ORDA ski centers do. Killington has a mountain coaster, the Killington Beast, that features a lift of 1,800 feet and a drop of 3,000 feet, totaling 4,800 feet in length with a maximum speed of 25 miles per hour. It opened in July 2015.

Lundin said it was too early to speak about the composition and length of the mountain coaster and zip line.

“A lot of things are changing now with skiers,” Lundin said. “They are expecting more amenities and value for their dollar, and as an organization at Whiteface and Gore, we are doing that.”

Cuomo also claims the investments at Whiteface and Gore will expand economic growth and investment opportunities in surrounding communities. He said it would “leverage” up to $80 million in private investment to “add additional amenities and retail options for guests,” although details of this were not given.

The $20 million for upgrades adds to $10 million Cuomo wants the state to give ORDA in the 2017-18 fiscal year. ORDA generally does not break even and requires annual state aid for operations.

Although ORDA had its two best summers on record back-to-back in 2015 and 2016, it was saddled by Whiteface’s worst winter season on record in 2015-16. ORDA’s operating revenues dropped by 25 percent from 2014-15 to 2015-16 as Whiteface’s total yearly revenues dropped from $9,549,752 to $7,698,359. Whiteface received 58 inches of natural snow and more than 17 inches of rain last season, compared to a typical average of more than 100 inches of snow.

ORDA officials hope early snowfall this season will result in a bounce-back. Also, the authority decided to lease a snowmaking machine for its cross-country ski center at Mount Van Hoevenberg for $90,000. The “Snow Factory,” which ORDA touts as the only one of its kind in North America, will be there through June, and the authority has the option to buy it.

The authority wants to grow by an average of 3 percent in the next three years, despite last winter’s struggles, Director of Marketing Liz Mezzetti said in December.

Meanwhile, ORDA is in the midst of a leadership change. Longtime CEO Ted Blazer retired in December, and former Gore General Manager Mike Pratt has taken over on an interim basis while the authority looks for Blazer’s long-term successor.