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Tupper Lake town board considers buying Big Tupper

Board members want more info before committing to purchase

The slopes of the Big Tupper Ski Area are seen across Raquette Pond in 2018. (Enterprise photo — Aaron Cerbone)

TUPPER LAKE — After a discussion with the Tupper Lake Business Group at a town board meeting last Thursday, board members are cautiously considering, among other things, purchasing the Big Tupper Ski Area if it becomes available at a foreclosure auction in the spring.

The group also asked the board to help assemble working groups to dive into the details of each of the five pillars of their long-term recreational plan. The main pillar is the purchasing of the now-defunct Big Tupper, which the town built in the 1960s and sold in the 1980s. The business group then wants to find some entity, public or private, to run the ski area.

Town board members said they are interested in this purchase but remained noncommittal on a “yes” answer, saying they want to make sure the financial investment will not be a poor choice for the town taxpayers.

Town Supervisor Patti Littlefield said several years ago she spoke with Franklin County Treasurer Fran Perry about Big Tupper, adding that she left a letter with Perry asking that the town be notified when the 90-day window in which it has first rights to buy the mountain begins. Littlefield said Wednesday that the town had not been notified yet.

“I think the board has indicated that if it becomes available, we certainly are receptive to the idea of pursuing acquiring it,” town Councilman John Quinn said

Business group member and Tupper Lake Free Press Publisher Dan McClelland said the board sounded “supportive” at the meeting, but it refrained from making any official agreements yet.

“As a general rule, can we safely say you guys are on board with us?” he asked.

“We’re not saying ‘no,'” Littlefield said.

She said there is a lot of work and “homework” that must be done before any of these plans moves forward.

“When you’re talking local government, it moves pretty slow,” Littlefield said. “I think you can safely say that we definitely support all the work you’ve done and all the projects you’re listing. … It’s just a matter of moving forward with it and all that has to be entailed, which is a lot.”

The main question board members said they want to research is how much purchasing the mountain would cost the town in the long term. It takes more than just paying for the property, they said. Littlefield mentioned insurance, consultants and contractors as the main additional expenses she is curious about.

The board members seem to believe the business group’s projected cost estimates are generous or incomplete. Littlefield pointed out that though the group has spoken with contractors willing to donate work for cheap or free, the town cannot just hire anyone. It has to first bid out the project and go through that process.

Local Realtor and business group member Rob Gillis asked the board to enter an agreement with the group to form working groups on each of the five portions of its recreation plan, to dive deeper into the details. He said he believes there are many opportunities for cost savings.

“We would like the board to conceptually agree with what we’re looking at, but we would like to move forward and maybe be able to create a (memorandum of understanding) that simply says the town board and the Tupper Lake Business Group are going to form committees to vet out these five areas and see what we can come up with,” Gillis said.

Littlefield said she has not discussed this idea at length with any of the board members but that they will discuss it at next month’s board meeting.

The plan and the mountain

The business group began last year when a group of business owners and community members put together an ambitious recreation plan they hope will jump-start the Tupper Lake economy. The plan includes constructing, expanding and improving snowmobile trails, cross-country ski trails, mountain biking trails, the town-owned golf course and, most importantly, the long-vacant Big Tupper Ski Area. All this is estimated to cost $928,000 by the group, which plans to pay for it through town funds, donations and grants.

The town owned the ski area for two decades until it sold the property to a private owner in 1987 for around half a million dollars. It closed in 1999 and since then it has fallen into disrepair after years of development plans for a resort, meant to finance the mountain, were stalled due to state agency permits, court battles and low finances.

Franklin County is preparing to foreclose on the property to take it away from developers Michael Foxman and Tom Lawson who own it through Big Tupper LLC. They also own the surrounding land, which was supposed to be part of the planned Adirondack Club and Resort project.

Franklin County is likely to finish foreclosing on the ski area property this spring, as Foxman and Lawson owe several hundred thousand dollars in unpaid taxes, going back years. On the ski area property, Big Tupper LLC owes $121,000, not including its 2020 taxes.

If these taxes are not paid in full, then the county will ask a judge for approval to take the property title. It would then hold a foreclosure auction on the property. Foxman and Lawson have until the day of the auction to pay these taxes in full and avoid foreclosure.

There is a time window when the town would have priority choice to purchase the property at the cost of back taxes — which the business group estimates is around $130,000 to $150,000.

“Ever since Big Tupper closed, our winter economy has noticeably suffered,” Gillis said. “When Tupper Lake controls the largest recreational asset in its community, Tupper Lake can control its future.”

Littlefield said she has spoken with some county legislators, including Tupper Lake village Mayor Paul Maroun, but not yet with county Chair Donald Dabiew.

She said the town is also waiting on a quote from its insurance company, New York Municipal Insurance Reciprocal, on how much it would cost to add insuring the 440 acres of the Big Tupper property to its policy.

People are known to hike or “skin” up the mountain in the snow and ski back down. They currently do that without the owner’s permission, so Littlefield said it could pose a financial risk to the town if someone gets injured in the process.

Public comment

Rick Donah, a local real estate owner, former ski patrol member and current member of the Franklin County Tourism Advisory Committee who started a petition for the state to buy the mountain last year, said he does not believe the town would assume a lot of risk in the purchase.

Hope Frenette said Big Tupper is “key” to the town. She said even if the town does not open it up as a ski area right away, people would come to hike and bike the mountain. She said the town just needs to open it.

Charlie Frenette pointed out that eventually, the ski area will not be able to be restored.

“We have an asset that is deteriorating by the day. Nature is in the process of reclaiming it, as it always does,” he said. “There will be a time when, in fact, it won’t be able to be renovated.”

Jim Costley said “the stars are really starting to align,” pointing out other recreation successes in Tupper Lake and overcrowding in the High Peaks.

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