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State should take over Big Tupper

A skier and a snowboarder ride a chairlift at Big Tupper Ski Area in March 2012, when the mountain was being run by volunteers. (Enterprise photo — Peter Crowley)

Today from noon to 4 p.m. in Tupper Lake is the Brew-Ski, a fun event that combines delicious craft beer from around the region with Tupper Lake’s fantastic James C. Frenette Sr. Recreational Trails.

These town-owned, volunteer-maintained cross-country ski trails are a wonderful asset, and we’re glad the Tupper Lake community has been promoting them recently. It was exciting for kids in the local ski league last week to welcome four-time Olympic biathlete Tim Burke, a Paul Smith’s native.

As these kids get a little older, we hope the school district will bring back its Nordic ski team. For a community that already has the trails, Nordic skiing is a relatively easy and cheap sport to add, since one coach can oversee both the boys and girls teams, and perhaps modified (middle school) teams as well. All of them can practice together. The Saranac Lake and Lake Placid teams would probably love to have someone else to race against, and their coaches could advise on ways to get ski gear for students who don’t have their own.

One could describe Tupper’s Nordic ski trails as underused, but at least they are used. Looming right behind them is a fantastic, beloved Alpine ski venue that hasn’t been used in years.

Rick Donah of Tupper Lake recently asked Gov. Andrew Cuomo if the state would take over Big Tupper Ski Area. Then Donah started a petition on Change.org Wednesday and got more than 1,500 people’s support that first day. By day 3, Friday, it had more than 4,000.

Add the Enterprise to that list.

We have publicly expressed disappointment in the way the state distributed Regional Economic Development Council grants for the North Country last year. The region’s biggest award was $3 million to tear down a Lake Placid hotel and rebuild it bigger — a chain hotel on a commercial strip, not historic, not downtown, not with any particular significance or spillover impact. Plus, it’s in Lake Placid, the place that needs the least government assistance in the whole North Country.

That amount, $3 million, would go a long way at Big Tupper. Foreclosure is about to begin for unpaid taxes, and the state could pick it up cheap. Of course, it would need renovation, and then annual operating costs may exceed revenue. But it would be a gigantic lift for a community that has lost many of its economic engines. With Big Tupper going strong in the winter and the Wild Center nature museum in the summer, plus two hotels being built and resurgent local entrepreneurism, the Tupper Lake transformation would really be something for a governor to brag about.

The private sector has tried and failed multiple times with this particular ski center. That’s not to say it couldn’t be done, but keep this in mind: Big Tupper was established in the 1960s by the town, which ran it until the 1980s when it was sold to Roger Jakubowski, who then sold it to Peter Day and LeRoy Pickering. They gave it a good go but were forced to close it in 1999. Then Michael Foxman and Tom Lawson tried for 15 years to make it work and never even got the doors open — although they let volunteers fix it up and run it for a few years. They said from the beginning that it only made business sense as the hub of a major real estate development, not on its own.

That history is likely to deter investors. Anyone expecting another private-sector savior for Big Tupper could be waiting a long time.

The state Olympic Regional Development Authority already runs two ski centers within an hour and 15 minutes’ drive of Big Tupper, Whiteface and Gore. While ORDA might not turn a profit, its experienced staff could probably run Big Tupper better and more efficiently than just about anyone else.

Besides, Big Tupper is a fabulous place to. It has dozens of trails and lots of long, sweet run-outs. Its richness of intermediate terrain makes it family friendly, comparable to the wonderful Titus Mountain in Malone, and the region could use more of that.

Also, skiers who come there may well discover that Tupper Lake also has an incredible wealth of other outdoor recreation: snowmobiling, Nordic skiing and, in summer, boating and hiking — plus great fishing year-round. One more big draw would bring people back enjoy these other things, and local entrepreneurs would rush to fill the demand. Tupper Lake also has the draw of affordable housing, unlike Lake Placid.

So Gov. Cuomo, if you’re reading this, we think Big Tupper would be a particularly good investment for North Country economic development. Tupper Lake has tons of outdoor recreation potential, and its residents are making as much of it as they can — but it’s hard to capitalize on it without outside investment. No one else is lining up to revive this fantastic Alpine ski center, and the state would do a good job. The return on investment would be greater than for most of state economic development awards.

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