Belleayre supporters take message to Albany; group protests budget cuts at state-run mountain
Local residents also respond to complaints from officials in Greene County
By Julia Green
Over 120 supporters of the proposed Belleayre expansion joined Partners for Progress on buses bound for the state capital Thursday to meet with legislators to protest budget cuts, changes in expansion plans, and what the group calls ‚Äúrecent attacks‚Äù by privately-owned Hunter and Windham ski centers on the state-run Belleayre.
In what supporters refer to as recent ‚Äúheavy hits‚Äù to the project, Hunter and Windham have been gaining media attention following press conferences accusing Belleayre of mismanagement and demanding an audit, and the DEC has pulled two significant components of the Agreement in Principle (AIP) ‚Äì the East Side Development and the Performing Arts Center ‚Äì out of the Belleayre Mountain Unit Management Plan.
The bus trip was the third in a series of activities planned to demonstrate the importance of and locals‚Äô support of Belleayre Mountain Ski Center and came on the heels of a statement released by the Plattekill Mountain Ski Resort, in which owner Laszlo Vajtay voiced his support of the Greene County Coalition for Economic Equality and the Blue Ribbon Commission legislation proposed by Sen. James Seward and Assembly member RoAnn Destito.
Vajtay cited Belleayre‚Äôs ‚Äúunfair competitive practices‚Äù that ‚Äúseriously threaten Plattekill‚Äôs ability to operate successfully and generate jobs and economic activity in our own community,‚Äù and added that Belleayre ‚Äúnegatively impacts my business.‚Äù
Those present on the trip included members of the Coalition to Save Belleayre, Partners for Progress, Chambers of Commerce in Ulster and Delaware counties and members of the Belleayre Region Lodging and Tourism Association in addition to a number of concerned local citizens.
‚ÄúThe primary group putting the trip together was Jim McGrath, Bob Konefal and the Coalition to Save Belleayre,‚Äù said Joan Lawrence-Bauer, executive director of the MARK Group. ‚ÄúI think the primary objective was getting attention, and then I would say the secondary objective was to let elected officials and media people and anyone else that would listen know that they are going to fight for their ski center.‚Äù
McGrath is the owner of Belleayre Ski Shop in Highmount and Konefal and his wife, Valerie, own the Pine Hill Arms Hotel and Restaurant.
Lawrence-Bauer said she was ‚Äúshocked‚Äù by the volume of people who turned out to make the trek to the state capital.
‚ÄúI knew that people were angry and upset, but translating that into action is not always the same thing,‚Äù she said. ‚ÄúI was really shocked. We ended up with 120 ‚Äì we had two buses and 10 cars. The vast majority was certainly primary residents ‚Äì the biggest block of people were Belleayre staffers on their day off. The second-biggest block of people were lodging bureau members, people who own lodging establishments, and are terrified of these attacks by Hunter and Windham.‚Äù
Sean Mounier, a regular skier who was once a second homeowner and is now a full-time resident 90 percent of the time, bought her home right across Route 28 from Belleayre in 1984 and has been following the issue all along.
‚ÄúI feel Belleayre is the largest employer in this region, and I think it‚Äôs disastrous that we‚Äôre not supporting Belleayre‚Äôs growth,‚Äù she said. ‚ÄúIt‚Äôs a depressed region and people need jobs.‚Äù
Prior to arriving in downtown Albany, Lawrence-Bauer addressed supporters, referencing what she called ‚Äúa similar fight‚Äù in 1984, when then-governor Mario Cuomo wanted to close Belleayre. ‚ÄúIt seems we‚Äôre fighting the same fight over and over,‚Äù she said. But, she added, organizers wanted to ensure that all meetings remained courteous. ‚ÄúWe‚Äôre not there to embarrass them or sandbag them,‚Äù she said. ‚ÄúWe‚Äôre there to have a dialog about Belleayre Mountain.‚Äù
Groups of Belleayre supporters met with a number of New York State legislators, including Senator Dean Skelos, Senator John Bonacic, Assemblymember Clifford Crouch, Assemblymember Kevin Cahill, and Deputy Secretary for the Environment Judith Enck. A meeting scheduled with Assemblymember Peter Lopez was canceled by the assemblymember due to a ‚Äúfull schedule‚Äù of meetings.
Team leaders were also appointed to lead each meeting with elected officials and included: Joe Kelly, chairman of the Coalition to Save Belleayre; Jim McGrath; Wallace Patterson of Partners for Progress; Rosina Montana, secretary for the Coalition to Save Belleayre; Tom White, treasurer; and Lawrence-Bauer.
Bonacic, who Belleayre supporters view as perhaps their strongest ally within the state senate, made a statement last week criticizing the DEC‚Äôs decision to remove the east side of the mountain and the performing arts center. In his meeting with Belleayre supporters, Bonacic acknowledged that by raising Belleayre to a prominent ski area, it has become competition for Hunter and Windham.
‚ÄúI‚Äôve tried to explain that when the tide rises for one ski area, it rises for all,‚Äù he said. ‚ÄúThere is reason for them to be upset that we‚Äôve put so much into Belleayre. We‚Äôve come a long way. Quite frankly, the only one fighting for Belleayre for you has been me. The only one.‚Äù
Lew Kolar, a member of the Coalition to Save Belleayre, expressed the region‚Äôs dire need for the project, citing the creation of a real estate tax base and jobs that are desperately needed. ‚ÄúThe community is dying on the vine,‚Äù he said.
White added that supporters are wary of the DEC‚Äôs claims that the removal of key items from the proposed management program are due to the state of the budget, since it is a plan and not a budget line item. White also voiced the concern that has been spreading among Belleayre supporters that the chipping away of the plan is in response to ‚Äúa lot of lobbying, especially from Greene County. Greene County should look at its own business plan,‚Äù he said.
Bonacic responded to the comments regarding the removal of the east side of the mountain as a work in progress. ‚ÄúThat fight is not over,‚Äù he said.
In reference to the lobbying on the part of Greene County, Bonacic gave weight to concerns that it was having a desired effect on legislators. ‚ÄúI can‚Äôt prove that it‚Äôs in response to Hunter and Windham, but I think it is,‚Äù he said. ‚ÄúThere was $750,000 in the 2007 budget for Belleayre. The assembly took it out.‚Äù He went on to reference other funds earmarked for Belleayre that ended up being removed from annual budgets.
Bonacic also cited the obstacles presented by the budget itself. ‚ÄúIt‚Äôs extremely difficult this year because of our national economy,‚Äù he said. ‚ÄúParks, recreation, roads, social services and mental health services get hit in this kind of economic environment. That‚Äôs the reality we have to live with.
‚ÄúI understand your plight, but there are times to ratchet it up. Your battle, your fight ‚Äì everybody on that bus should be in Cahill‚Äôs office saying, ‚ÄòHow can you support a resolution [that takes money from Belleayre]?‚Äô‚Äù
In terms of the private aspect of the proposed Belleayre expansion, Bonacic said, ‚ÄúYou have never seen me get in the way of that project,‚Äù and added that, ‚ÄúEvery person who pays taxes has the right to develop their property.‚Äù
‚ÄúNew York City wants to curtail it,‚Äù he said. ‚ÄúThe Crossroads Venture took longer than it took to rebuild the World Trade Center site. I thought we were out of the woods when Governor Spitzer came to the Holiday Inn in Kingston and said, ‚ÄòWe have a deal.‚Äô Now there‚Äôs a curveball: Spitzer‚Äôs gone, and I don‚Äôt know what that means.‚Äù
Bonacic added that there is clearly a ‚Äúhostility‚Äù toward Belleayre, the clearest indication of which is the removal of $7.7 million in funding, and acknowledged that the assembly is dominated by New York City interests.
‚ÄúWe want that project to go forward,‚Äù he said. ‚ÄúWe know it‚Äôs needed up there.‚Äù But, he added, ‚ÄúI can‚Äôt guarantee what‚Äôs going to happen now.‚Äù
‚ÄúWe should be looking to help all three ski areas and this backbiting is not helpful. It‚Äôs your success that‚Äôs driving [Hunter and Windham] nuts. The more ski areas the better, because the good skiers ski them all.‚Äù
‚ÄúI hear you loud and clear, and I‚Äôll fight for you,‚Äù he said.
Cahill, who supporters criticized for being ‚ÄúAWOL‚Äù and voicing no support of Belleayre, met with Belleayre supporters later in the day, and those in the meeting asked that Cahill take it upon himself to ensure that funds allotted for Belleayre stay there.
Cahill responded by saying that, ‚ÄúThe unit management plan is not a current document yet. What have been released are scoping documents. The plan has not been implemented yet, so to say that it‚Äôs not in there is not entirely accurate. There is still an opportunity for input.‚Äù
Cahill added that the distinction being made between Belleayre and the Hunter and Windham ski centers is ‚Äúa distinction that doesn‚Äôt make a whole lot of sense. We‚Äôre either going to draw people to the region or we‚Äôre not going to draw people to the region.‚Äù He referenced Belleayre as ‚Äúthe gateway to those other mountains,‚Äù and added that the sense of Belleayre as the gateway to the ski area and not just one mountain is the future for the ski center.
He added that Hunter and Windham have the right to express their opinions that Belleayre is engaging in ‚Äúpredatory marketing practices,‚Äù and that, at the end of the day, the truth will come to light. ‚ÄúIt‚Äôs a fair thing to air. Let‚Äôs have that discussion.‚Äù
Belleayre supporters‚Äô claims that damaging comments by the competition have had a negative impact on the level of support for the project were denied by Cahill, who said that he has been assured by colleagues of no such influence and that there exists a ‚Äúfair consensus of support for development on the mountain.‚Äù
Cahill disagreed with claims that business owners are walking away from businesses as a direct result of this issue, and rejected suggestions that he should write a public letter of commitment to the cause.
‚ÄúI don‚Äôt need to issue a letter. I have a record that supports my commitment to Belleayre,‚Äù he said, adding that by engaging in public argument with the opposition would be legitimizing their claims.
White stated that, ‚ÄúThe better Belleayre does, the better the community does.‚Äù
‚ÄúI agree,‚Äù Cahill said. ‚ÄúI will continue to help as I have all along.‚Äù
Supporters also met with DEP Deputy Secretary for the Environment Judith Enck, under whose direction the Agreement in Principle (AIP) was negotiated in September at the direction of then-governor Eliot Spitzer.
Joe Kelly said, ‚ÄúThis coordinated attack on Belleayre by Hunter and Windham is almost unconscionable.‚Äù
Enck acknowledged that there have been lobbies conducted by supporters of Hunter and Windham, but added that the state is ‚Äúvery committed to keeping Belleayre open and running and functional, and we realize it is an integral part of both communities.‚Äù
Enck added that she is ‚Äúfully committed to implementing the AIP,‚Äù and that although she has not yet briefed newly-appointed Governor David Paterson, she doesn‚Äôt expect any real change.
‚ÄúI‚Äôm very proud of this agreement,‚Äù she said. ‚ÄúI think it is good for the economy and the environment. The facts have not changed since September. Leadership is about staying with what you think is a sensible proposal.
‚ÄúI think things are generally on track.‚Äù
‚ÄúAcross the board everybody did what they were going to do,‚Äù Lawrence-Bauer said. ‚ÄúI was just amazed at the people marching on the steps of the Capitol. They didn‚Äôt give up. It got nicer as the day wore on, but to see all of those people out there with those homemade signs and to see that passion‚Ä¶ not only were they on the steps, they marched down to the DEC office and back up again. That was amazing to me, it really was.‚Äù
‚ÄúPeople tend to feel very frustrated, like there isn‚Äôt anything they can do, and I think certainly everybody on the buses felt empowered, like they were doing something,‚Äù she added. ‚ÄúThey said, ‚ÄòWe‚Äôre not just going to sit here and let these things happen without standing up for ourselves.‚Äô So I think the feelings on the bus were very positive.
‚ÄúI think they had a textbook day.‚Äù