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ORDA approves Olympic oval, Whiteface improvements

Work vehicles and equipment moved onto the Olympic Speed Skating Oval in Lake Placid on Sunday, Feb. 28, after the venue hosted its final day of skating for the season. (Enterprise photo — Lou Reuter)

LAKE PLACID — Major renovations to the Olympic Speed Skating Oval and Whiteface Mountain’s snowmaking system will be made in the next two years, after the Olympic Regional Development Authority board approved $12.4 million and $9.3 million, respectively, for the projects at its meeting Friday.

This is the latest in a string of updates to state Olympic Regional Development Authority winter sports venues in recent years, as the state, ORDA and Lake Placid gear up to host the Winter World University Games in January 2023.

Work on the Mount Van Hoevenberg Olympic Sports Complex, Whiteface Mountain Ski Center, ski jumps and Olympic Center ice rinks is underway or has already been completed.

Money approved

The board approved spending $12.4 million on the James Sheffield Speed Skating Oval, which will undergo a complete renovation inside and out over the next year.

The board also approved a $9.3 million renovation to Whiteface Mountain’s snowmaking system, which will be upgraded with new pumps and pipes over the summer to be ready for the snow season later this year.

The board approved an additional $221,687 for the Mount Van Hoevenberg base lodge and facility because the contractor needed to remove and replace “unsuitable soils” in the construction process. The total spent on this facility is now $33.1 million, according to ORDA.

The board also approved spending increases for the Belleayre Mountain Ski Center base lodge, which was damaged in an avalanche Christmas morning 2020. The original cost of the repairs and expansion was estimated at $14.6 million, but after several changes to designs and asbestos abatement the new cost is $15.2 million, according to ORDA.

ORDA has already approved $34.5 million for renovations at the Lake Placid Olympic Center — the 1980 Rink, 1932 Rink and refrigeration system that cools all the center’s rinks. The only major project at the center left to be funded is the “link building” connecting the oval with the rest of the center.

This whole taxpayer-funded renovation to the Olympic Center was estimated to cost around $100 million when it was proposed in 2019. Gov. Andrew Cuomo and New York’s Legislature have so far invested hundreds of millions of dollars in these upgrades in advance of the World University Games.

“None of this would be happening if we didn’t have the support of the state,” ORDA board member Betty Little said. “Along with being historic, this makes us relevant.”

The latest annual round of funding was proposed in Cuomo’s 2021-22 Executive Budget in January, which included $92.5 million for ORDA winter sports facility upgrades, including the Olympic Center. The Legislature has not signed off on that yet but in past years has approved Cuomo’s ORDA funding proposals.

Oval construction

Construction on the oval is estimated to take 434 days, or a year and two months. ORDA CEO Mike Pratt said the majority of work should be done in time to host the FISU World Speed Skating Championships in 2022 from March 2 to 6.

A potential additional cost of $637,000 was also approved, only if asbestos is discovered in the demolition.

LeChase Construction Services LLC and Cannon Design Architecture and Engineering P.C. were selected to do the work.

Some North Country construction firms have spoken out against ORDA’s plans to require union labor for this project.

The oval track itself will be replaced and reshaped. Long-track speedskating standards have changed since the 1980 Olympics and up until this point Lake Placid’s oval has been grandfathered in. This new oval will remove 7 feet of ice from the outside curve of the two big turns on either end and add those 7 feet to the inside curve. With that extra footage ORDA will have room to create a plaza for athletes and spectators on the north end of the oval.

Pratt said the current steel piping will be replaced with more resilient polymer plastic pipe.

“It’s time to replace” the 1977 scorekeeping building, he said. The new design will have a smaller footprint and an “Adirondack style.”

A new entrance with stairs to the oval will lead from Cummings Road. New flagpoles with each Olympic nation’s flag will be installed, making more room for a sidewalk along Cummings Road. New dimmable and color-changing LED lighting will be installed. A lighter-colored concrete will be used for the track, to allow for less sun absorption, which leads to melting.

Pratt gave a brief history of Lake Placid hosting international skating events, starting in 1920 with the International Outdoor Speed Skating Championships. He said these championships opened the door to the oval and Lake Placid hosting the 1932 Winter Olympic Games.

These games marked the first time a medals podium was used at the Olympics.

“We were the inventors of the tiered podium,” Pratt said.

In a photo he shared, Pratt pointed out the stars and stripes-ringed podium, saying that design was a bit of wishful thinking on the home team’s part. It paid off.

Lake Placid native Jack Shea, shown in a photo accepting his medal, became the first Olympian to stand atop the podium after winning gold in the 500m race.

When the oval was rebuilt with new refrigeration in 1977 it was named after James “Bunnie” Sheffield, a Lake Placid native and legendary speed skater. Pratt shared a photo of Sheffield on skates, barrel jumping over five grinning spectators lying down on the ice.

The number of visitors to the oval has risen a lot in recent years. A graph Pratt shared shows 16,000 visitors in the 2018-19 season, 18,000 in the 2019-2020 season and 21,754 in 2020-21, a record number despite the COVID-19 pandemic.

The revenue the oval generates, too, has risen greatly. It brought in around $162,000 in the 2018-19 and rose sharply in the 2020-21 season to $380,000.

“Certainly this was the winter of outdoor recreation,” Pratt said.

Little noticed the revenue bar jumped up even higher than the visitor bar and asked if the ticket price has gone up, too.

Pratt said during this last season ORDA raised the price at peak use times because the pandemic limited the oval’s capacity. He said ORDA also extended the hours the oval was open each week.

With a new refrigeration system using a more efficient form of glycol, ORDA hopes the outdoor oval’s season can stretch longer in the future.

Whiteface work

The goal of the Whiteface snowmaking improvements is to make more snow in less time.

Pratt said Whiteface has the greatest vertical climb of any ski area in the East — 3,000 feet — and it takes a lot of pressure to get water from the AuSable River up to the top.

This year, Whiteface spent 1,798 hours making snow from 287.5 million gallons of water. Its average rate of gallons per minute was 2,704 with a maximum GPM of nearly 5,000.

Pratt said the new system should be able to pump the same number of gallons in 1,100 hours, a 40% reduction in time, with an average GPM of 4,500.

He said less time spent making snow should translate into energy savings, too.

Ski passes for the 2021-22 season went on sale March 17, two days before the ORDA board meeting. Pratt said in the first two days the mountain sold 2,200 season passes, a revenue of $1 million. The ongoing 2020-21 season has so far brought in $9 million, he said.

Work already done

The Olympic Sports Complex at Mount Van Hoevenberg has added a new lodge, biathlon shooting range, Nordic ski race stadium, snowmaking, ski trails, bobsled practice house and a mountain coaster ride for tourists. The ski jumps have gotten on-slope refrigeration, a gondola and a zipline ride, and their landing hills are being regraded. Whiteface Mountain Ski Center overhauled its Base Lodge, replaced its midstation lodge and is replacing its gondola cabins.

(Correction: An earlier version of this article incorrectly said Lake Placid’s Olympic Speedskating Oval hosted the 1920 International Outdoor Speed Skating Championships. Those races were held on Mirror Lake, before the oval was built for the 1932 Winter Olympics. The Enterprise regrets the error.)

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