$100M sticker shock

To a lot of people, it’s baffling that the state Olympic Regional Development Authority is proposing to spend $100 million on an overhaul of a single winter sports venue, the Lake Placid Olympic Center.

That’s after an overhaul of the Nordic-biathlon-bobsled-luge-skeleton complex at Mount Van Hoevenberg that’s estimated to cost $60 million (as of June), $5 million to replace the Whiteface elevator, a ski jump project likely to exceed its $5 million budget (seeing as the low bid for just one part of it came in at $12 million), and multi-million-dollar projects at Whiteface, Gore and Belleayre ski centers.

We think ORDA’s staff and leaders are good people and that upgrading these Olympic venues is a great thing. But obviously, there are plenty of great things New Yorkers can do with $100 million. Word is getting out about that price tag, and ORDA has some explaining to do to — not just to people here but to folks all over New York. Some are looking at Lake Placid with resentment right now.

We’ve heard grumblings from Lake George, where the state ordered the village to spend more than $20 million on a new sewage treatment plant that will help keep the water in this iconic Adirondack lake clean and safe. But the state didn’t pay as much for that project as a lot of people there would have liked, which will burden taxpayers there for many years to come.

We also can’t help thinking about the long-neglected upgrade of North Country Community College’s Saranac Lake campus. For local residents, a community college is a big deal — a way to keep their children here after high school and a way for locals to change careers.

Also in the Adirondacks, resources are needed to handle a rising tide of hikers: for instance, more safe roadside parking areas, and more forest rangers and other staff for the state Department of Environmental Conservation. The state doesn’t need to spend more money to attract hikers, but it does to make sure they have places to park and rangers to keep them safe.

While Olympic tourism and winter sports events are important to our area’s economy, annual studies have consistently shown that hiking is more important. In the latest Leisure Travel Study from the Regional Office of Sustainable Tourism, based in Lake Placid, 85% of Essex County visitors surveyed last year said they planned to hike, while 29% planned to visit Olympic venues.

Nevertheless, we support the state investing in making Lake Placid’s winter sports venues world-class again — especially before the 2023 Winter Universiade (aka World University Games). But $100 million for one venue is pretty shocking.

ORDA can win over many skeptics with more public engagement. It is already holding its public board meetings monthly instead of quarterly, which is good, but more can be done. In the long term, public projects of this scale will work better when the government has buy-in from a fully informed public. For example, look at how much public engagement there was with the $10 million Downtown Revitalization Initiative grant package for Saranac Lake: The state oversaw the process and had the final word, but there were a ton of public meetings and a local citizens’ committee had real authority. The result was public trust and a better, more effective project in the long run.

Again, we know upgrading the Olympic venues is expensive, and we still support it. But a $100 million project requires a higher level of public explanation and accountability.

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