Big Tupper in limbo, again

With owners in debt, Tupper Lakers question when and if the mountain will ever open

The Big Tupper lodge, seen earlier this month, has not held skiers in four years. (Enterprise photo — Aaron Cerbone)

TUPPER LAKE — Mount Morris is an ever-present force here. The trails of the Big Tupper Ski Area on its north face are visible from most places in town, tracing veins down the mountain, veins that used to flow with skiers.

It’s been four years since skiers and snowboarders have been allowed on the mountain, 20 years since the ski area was reliably open, and a long time since anyone in town has heard anything about its future.

The mountain is for some a sign of hope that the town may once again have a winter tourism economy. For others, it is a sad reminder of the legal battles and unfulfilled promises that have kept the mountain empty year after year.

Talking with business owners, politicians and residents in town, all are hopeful they will ski Big Tupper again. However, many have lost faith that time will be soon. At least, under its current circumstances.

A lack of communication by the developers and property owners, Michael Foxman and Tom Lawson, has left Tupper Lakers in the dark, resulting in many forming pessimistic views of the project, and a variety of theories about the mountain being discussed around town.

Big Tupper Ski Area is bursting with activity in this 2011 photo. (Enterprise file photo — Jessica Collier)

In a way, all Tupper Lakers feel some form of ownership over the ski area, as it was a town-owned venue for the first half of its existence, and they are frustrated when they do not know what is happening up there.

As local real estate owner and former ski patrol member Rick Donah said, “It’s not just (their) mountain.”

It was a town fixture from when it was built in 1960, back when the town was the town of Altamont until it was sold in 1987 for around half a million dollars.

It changed hands as a privately owned ski center a couple of times before Foxman and Lawson, through Preserve Associates LLC, purchased the ski area in the early 2000s.

They had a plan to use real estate to fund the reopening, saying the only way a ski area can be successful today is with another money-making element. Their Adirondack Club and Resort would have included 18 “Great Camp” luxury home lots on 5,800 acres of former timber land purchased from the Oval Wood Dish Corporation Liquidating Trust, plus “ski-in, ski-out” condos around the ski area, plus a marina on Big Tupper Lake, an equestrian center, a hotel and a restaurant. The plan was to use 7.25% of money from land sales toward ski lifts, lodge restoration and snowmaking at Big Tupper.

There was trouble, though. After a false start of review in 2007, the project did not receive Adirondack Park Agency approval until 2012.

It was the biggest project ever brought before the Adirondack Park Agency board. Then it got stuck in court for years as environmental groups Protect the Adirondacks and the Sierra Club sued to stop the permits from coming in. They said the project would divide forests into roughly 40-acre housing developments, which they said would be harmful for wildlife.

Though Preserve Associates won in court, the environmental groups may have fatally stalled the project.

After years of legal fees and a lack of income from the project, the developers racked up major debts, as did Lawson himself. He had further extended himself by buying numerous properties in Tupper Lake, including an airstrip and several buildings in the Park Street business district. At one point he owed more than $1.5 million in back taxes alone, which further hindered progress.

Last year, Lawson said the mountain would be up and running again over this past winter, this time with employees. A team of 200 volunteers from ARISE (Adirondack Residents Intent on Saving their Economy) had opened it several times in the past decade. However, as the season went on, it became apparent that Big Tupper would remain closed through another season.

“He announced back in December of 2017, publicly. In the paper, there’s an article that basically says Big Tupper’s going to open next season,” Donah said in January. “Then it was repeated again in June, it was repeated again in August, it was repeated again in September. Every time, a big article says, ‘This is what we’re going to do.’ Then when it comes to the season, not a peep.

“This is the most snow we’ve had in I don’t know how long — a long time. That’s why it’s so frustrating to us skiers who want to see the mountain back open. We’ve operated in snow conditions with less than half of what we have now.”

In a June 20 post on the Ski Big Tupper Facebook page, which Donah runs, he wrote that he finds it hard to blame the investors.

“I understand Tom Lawson lost all his money. I’m not blaming Tom Lawson,” Donah said in July. “The environmental groups had a strategy, and that was to delay and cost the developers all kinds of money, and to fight it and fight it and fight it until they went broke, which worked. … They’ve all been successful at derailing the restoration of Big Tupper. But people don’t like it when I say it that way.”

Not everyone holds the developers blameless, though.

“I think they bit off more than they could chew right from the beginning,” village board Trustee Ron LaScala said.

Donah said he and the 20 other ski patrol members were never brought up to the mountain to prepare for the season and did not hear anything about it opening except in the newspapers.

“Now, granted, it is a construction site, and in his defense, he’s got heavy equipment up there … but just tell us. Have the courtesy to communicate to the volunteers,” Donah said. “The effort from the volunteers, ARISE and the greater community has given that ski area a life. We didn’t sit back and let it rust away. We helped put it back on the map.”

The lack of information coming from the mountain has an effect on many residents of Tupper Lake. Small businesses banking on the creation of a winter economy struggle, leading to fewer job opportunities, leading to people moving away.

“It’s just tough to keep businesses alive here in Tupper. … It’s hard to keep a business here in my building,” Donah said. “The reality is that this community suffers the longer that area sits idle.”

“I think that the value of the impact of Big Tupper is being underestimated by the ACR,” Donah said in January.

Again, Donah said he did not blame Lawson but added that if he does not want to operate the ski area, he should find a private or state owner to run it. There have been rumors of efforts to sell or buy it over the past couple months, some of which have been substantiated.

Mayor Paul Maroun recently said Sotheby’s real estate firm was looking at marketing the mountain for sale. An Adirondack Explorer article in June said Lawson tried to buy out Foxman and other owners of the mountain, unsuccessfully.

“I think there needs to be a path for the future of Big Tupper. And if it’s not the ACR as it stands, then we need to come up with another plan,” Donah said. “Park Street’s coming back. The investments that the state has made in the (street) infrastructure is paying off. The community is looking better. We’re moving forward, but the ACR is not moving forward. So what’s the next step?”

Donah thinks that step is to let Franklin County take the mountain property through a tax foreclosure and turn it into a state Olympic Regional Development Authority facility, like Whiteface and Gore. That is also the outcome environmental groups such as the Adirondack Council have favored in the past.

According to Franklin County Treasurer Frances Perry, Preserve Associates currently owes $115,704.46 in back taxes on the mountain property and defaulted on its payment plan in May.

Donah said Whiteface Mountain never turns a profit but survives because it is subsidized with tax dollars. He said Big Tupper could get off the ground by relying on the state instead of real estate.

He believes it would still require several hundred thousand dollars to get the mountain up and running, finish the lodge and rebuild Lift 1 and the ski patrol shack.

“You could get the basic operations back and with some minimal snowmaking have a functional ski area,” Donah said.

When ARISE operated the recreation center from 2009 to 2014, it took around $750,000 in donations annually from people all over the region to keep it running in a minimal form.

“We’ve tried our best. The community can’t support it in a volunteer manner anymore,” Donah said. “That’s not an option.”

Jim LaValley, a Tupper Lake real estate broker, started ARISE in 2009. He was the designated seller of ACR building lots and has been one of the project’s most vocal supporters, but he has not said much recently. Contacted for this article, he said he cannot speak because he is under a “gag order.” He did not say who had ordered him not to talk.

Donah said year-round tourism in Tupper Lake is not a want; it is a need.

“Park Street’s coming back, but we need year-round tourism,” Donah said. “All these hotels that they’re talking about building, all that has to have some winter business.”

Two hotel projects are being planned in Tupper Lake.

Donah is also a member of the Franklin County Tourism Advisory Committee, representing the Tupper Lake area.

“When I’m sitting at the table and I’m trying to negotiate more marketing resources for Tupper Lake, and the mountain is a big question mark, it makes my job harder,” Donah said.

He pointed to the millions of dollars New York state has invested in Whiteface and Gore, as well as the Frontier Town campground complex, and said a Tupper Lake ski mountain would compliment these and enhance the Adirondack ski industry.

LaScala said he loves this idea.

The only con Donah could think of was that Titus Mountain Family Ski Center in Malone would have more state competition. Donah sits with Bruce Monette, owner of Titus, on the tourism committee, and thought Monette might be upset to see a state-run facility open in Franklin County.

He said the biggest pro would be that Tupper Lake would have a ski mountain again.

“(Selling) it was the biggest mistake our community made,” Donah said of the town’s 1987 decision. “The thing that sucks about this, when you think about it, is there are generations of kids who are missing out on learning how to ski or snowboard here.”

Talk to any lifetime Tupper Laker, and most can tell you of the fond memories of skiing Big Tupper when they were young, and how excited they were to get back on the mountain when ARISE ran it.

Now, many residents’ knees or backs have gone bad waiting for the opportunity to ski Big Tupper once again, and a new generation hopes to get its first chance.

Also published today: Big Tupper developers have big debts.

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