Van Hoevenberg upgrade meant to ‘last 100 years’
LAKE PLACID — As Kris Cheney-Seymour gave a tour of the enormous new Mountain Pass Lodge at Mount Van Hoevenberg on March 14, at one point he said, without breaking his matter-of-fact tone, this is now “one of the greatest Nordic venues on the planet.”
He also said the investment will pay off for a century to come.
“We’ve built a venue that, for recreation, healthy lifestyle and sport, will last 100 years,” he said.
Cheney-Seymour is the Nordic manager for New York’s Olympic Regional Development Authority, which has been upgrading the winter sports venues it runs at a rapid pace, thanks to a state investment of hundreds of millions of dollars.
While Cheney-Seymour is happy to show off Van Hoevenberg’s world-class amenities, ORDA has been relatively quiet about this massive project so far. A few years ago, ORDA officials and local political leaders convinced Gov. Andrew Cuomo to upgrade the 1980 Winter Olympic venues for the 2023 Winter World University Games, which will draw an estimated 2,500 athletes to Lake Placid. Every year since 2018, Cuomo has put between $60 million and $148 million in the state budget for ORDA venue upgrades, and the Legislature has passed it each time. With that kind of money coming in from Albany, the authority hasn’t been motivated to do much explaining to locals.
The venue has been radically upgraded — and radically unified. The people who come here for recreation, competition and athlete training are mixed into the same space.
As recently as a year-and-a-half ago, the bobsled-luge-skeleton track and the ski trails were spread apart, with separate parking lots and separate cultures. Now everyone enters through the track’s parking lots and are funneled toward the new, three-story lodge.
On one side of the building they see a new Nordic ski stadium and a 30-row biathlon shooting range. On the other side they see the sliding track and a new plaza for medal ceremonies or summer concerts. The track, which opened in 2000 on the site of the 1980 bobsled and luge tracks, already hosts regular World Cup competitions, but now Van Hoevenberg is equipped to host the world’s biggest biathlon and cross-country skiing races as well — if it can get them.
Inside the 30,000-square-foot lodge are generously spaced lounges, a food counter, a Swix ski shop, a gift shop and a ski-snowshoe rental station. Rooms can be rented for private events. There are outdoor decks with in-floor heat. A climbing wall is planned.
Visitors can also watch U.S. bobsled-skeleton team members do sprints on a running track or practice their starts on an iced ramp. (There’s a bar overlooking it, if you want to sip while they slide.) The U.S. Biathlon team will train here as well. With a weight room, showers and dining here as well, these Olympians and Olympic hopefuls may never need to leave, except to sleep.
And then there’s the new Cliffside Coaster, an amusement ride that takes riders up the side of Mount Van Hoevenberg itself and around the sliding track on a bobsled-shaped car, with a recording of NBC bobsled announcer John Morgan (who lives in Lake Placid) narrating the track’s history and calling them through the curves on the way down.
This isn’t just a winter venue anymore. In addition to the coaster, the state is moving the wildly popular hiking trails to Cascade and Porter mountains so they’ll begin here at the lodge. An explosive growth of hiking has overflowed Cascade’s current trailhead parking area on state Route 73. Now there will be much more parking, plus other amenities.
Also starting here is a trail up Mount Van Hoevenberg itself, which the state has rerouted and rebuilt, adding switchbacks and extensive stone stairways to make it easier and more erosion-proof.
Time and money
The final price tag for New York taxpayers was around $80 million, ORDA spokesperson Elise Ruocco confirmed this month. That’s nearly double the $40-50 million estimate ORDA gave in February 2019, which had risen to $60 million by the time site work began that June. Since that time, ORDA’s board approved several change orders for unforeseen expenses at Van Hoevenberg costing at least $2.75 million.
Ruocco said the project did not go over budget, however. She said early figures given to the public were “preliminary for the conversations at hand” and did not include “the total scope of the project.” As examples, she said they did not include upgrades to the sliding track’s start house and cooling tower.
The Van Hoevenberg overhaul finished ahead of schedule. When construction began in June 2019, ORDA was estimating 26 months of work, which would have meant opening this coming August. Instead, the lodge opening was phased in between Thanksgiving and Christmas 2020, Cheney-Seymour said. That’s about eight months early.
From 1980 to now
Much more was invested in Van Hoevenberg in the last two years than when it hosted the 1980 Winter Olympics. Back then, the state of New York built a rather humble wooden ski lodge. The focus was on making excellent ski trails.
“The 1980 trails have always been regarded by the Nordic community on the planet as some of the finest old-style trails in the world,” Cheney-Seymour said. “Van Hoevenberg has huge numbers of people who visit; last season we had 40,000 skier visits here, and a lot of those are international. We have a lot of people coming from Germany and Scandinavia. We interestingly have a lot of people who visit from Russia or are people who have emigrated to the U.S., and they all have memories of 1980 and this place.”
Starting in 2019, the state transformed this into the kind of facility that could host a modern Olympics, although that goal is never publicly discussed in Lake Placid. The World University Games will be this venue’s international coming-out party.
Landing the Winter Universiade was the turning point toward making the Van Hoevenberg dream come true. When FISU (International University Sports Federation) officials toured Lake Placid in February 2018, Winter Games Director Milan Augustin said, “Sports like cross country and biathlon are the first which has to be basically built from scratch.”
“Those sports had changed so significantly in even just the last decade,” Cheney-Seymour said.
Television has driven those changes. Biathlon in particular has raged to massive popularity in Europe and Russia in the last two decades. Its TV viewership rivals the most popular U.S. sports, such as NFL football.
Those fans want to see the athletes, not wait for them to come out of the woods, so biathlon and Nordic skiing have adapted from long loops to short ones with more laps, and thus more visibility.
“The goal is that with about a dozen cameras, you can have about 80% access on an entire trail,” Cheney-Seymour said. “Basically what you have to have is like the petals on a flower: that you have the stadium in the middle and you have these small loops that people take to come back into the stadium. It’s great for spectators, it’s easier for television, it makes it more exciting, it’s good for announcing, and that was the thing we had to build.”
Beneath the surface
Below what people see at Van Hoevenberg, the hidden infrastructure is world-class as well.
A room in the back of the lodge is full of computer servers and blue bundles of fiber-optic cable. This is the hub of a digital spiderweb buried beneath the racing trails, waiting for European TV networks in big competitions.
“This room, all of this data is connected to the trail outside: the (shooting) range, the broadcast area and track,” Cheney-Seymour said.
To explain how it works, he noted that just before our tour, he had been watching a biathlon World Cup race in the public lounge, on a TV that’s always tuned to the Olympic Channel. The U.S. relay team of Sean Doherty and Susan Dunklee had won a bronze medal in the Czech Republic.
“We were watching Sean Doherty, with a few seconds’ delay, him hitting targets live,” Cheney-Seymour said. “So what that is for us is hundreds of miles of conduit data that ties into a connection server out there (pointing out the window toward the trails), gets to here.
“Next to this room is timing and scoring (offices), where there will be the computers of, like, Swiss Timing or whatever. It then goes back to a broadcast center that’s in parking lot 2, and that fast, that hit on the target goes through that network and goes live to Europe.”
It’s very cool, he acknowledged, “but it’s also a mammoth feat.”
Another infrastructure feat is the new snowmaking system, with protects against having to cancel a race due to warm weather.
“If you have a cross-country or biathlon World Cup on the calendar, no one cares about if you’ve had a bad winter,” Cheney-Seymour said. “They just want the snow on the course.”
He said FIS, the International Ski Federation, confirmed that Van Ho has more snowmaking power — from the number of snow guns and hydrants to the capacity of its new reservoir — than any other Nordic venue on planet Earth.
“On the 5K of (racing) trails we have a gun every 60 to 80 feet, which is a lot of them,” he said. “It allows us to make snow efficiently and quickly, so we can put the snow where we want it instead of spreading it into the sky and having it blow away.”
If there’s no natural snow but it’s below freezing, “We can cover 5 kilometers of skiing, at 30 feet wide and 20 centimeters deep, in about a week.”
There’s also the human infrastructure. Van Hoevenberg and the ski jumping complex in Lake Placid share staff, and in winter, about 100 people work there. “In the summer, that’s cut 40-ish percent in the past,” Cheney-Seymour said, but that could change with more summer visitors for the coaster and trailheads, as well as the jumps’ new zipline and gondola.
Dream come true
The changes here are mind-blowing for many, but this was Cheney-Seymour’s vision when he was hired here in 2014.
He grew up in Saranac Lake, raced in his younger days and then became a passionate coach, including for some local kids who became Olympians: Bill Demong, Tim Burke, Lowell Bailey, Haley Johnson and Annelies Cook.
His other career was as an architect. At Van Hoevenberg, he got to help design his ideal venue.
“All of this was a dream,” he said. “I think it was the wildest dream for the people who care about these things.”
They completed the vision fully.
Max Cobb, CEO of U.S. Biathlon, said it’s normal in Europe for such venues to be built by government, since the popular sport provides a massive economic boost to the host town. In North America, the only top-tier biathlon venues were built for Olympics, as in Utah, Alberta or British Columbia. The others are smaller affairs either developed by the National Guard or cobbled together with private donations. Lake Placid is unique on this continent in that government built it to premier standards with no Olympics in sight.
“It’s a top-level facility, absolutely,” Cobb said.
“We have not cut corners,” Cheney-Seymour said. “We’ve thought big. It’s been supported by the government. Our CEO has not just supported the vision but has been a very strong part of that and has been excited about what this place can be. It’s been really exciting to be part of that.”