ORDA losing state money, claims NYS Comptroller's audit
By Jay Braman Jr.
The agency that was handed the keys to Belleayre Mountain Ski Center less than two years ago has been losing money, and lots of it, according to New York State Comptroller Thomas DiNapoli, whose office just released an audit report on the Olympic Regional Development Authority (ORDA) that shows it lost $45 million in just three years.
Also, the Comptroller is recommending that ORDA begin taking more of the revenue from the Belleayre Conservatory, a local nonprofit organization that puts on a popular summer concert series at Belleayre.
ORDA, the entity that has run the state’s other two ski centers in the Adirondacks for decades, was given the management duties of the state-owned Belleayre Ski Center in 2012 because Governor Andrew Cuomo decided ORDA would do a better job of running the facility than the state ever did.
However, the comptroller’s report indicates that ORDA is not running it well at all.
In response to the report, ORDA officials indicated their organization is unlike most public authorities because it has very cyclical revenue streams. They emphasized ORDA earns nearly 85 percent of its annual revenues over a five-month period of winter business. They also indicated that revenues are largely dependent on uncontrollable factors such as weather and tourism trends.
The 33-page document, which includes several pages of explanation from ORDA, does not really differentiate between ORDA’s running of Belleayre and its other ski centers, Whiteface and Gore, in the Adirondacks.
But it does point to ORDA’s relationship with a local non-profit group that uses Belleayre for a music venue, with the comptroller calling for that group to give more money to ORDA.
The comptroller reviewed ORDA’s contract with the Belleayre Conservatory, which ORDA continued to honor when the Department of Environmental Conservation transferred Belleayre to ORDA in November 2012.
Based on the existing contract terms, ORDA is responsible for setting up the stage and providing security for shows and has to provide the Conservatory with free office space year-round, including paying for utilities and maintenance, and maintain the grounds. The Conservatory recruits and pays for the entertainment, arranges for the installation of the tent covering the stage and the show sound, lighting, and seating.
During the 2013 Belleayre concert series that ended in August 2013, one auto show and 13 concerts took place.
“The Conservatory charged admission for these shows, but shared none of this revenue with ORDA,” the audit states. “ORDA officials expressed concerns about this arrangement….ORDA should continue to pursue a fair arrangement with the Conservatory which, at a minimum, covers ORDA’s costs associated with these events.”
Quickly, the Conservatory issued a statement that they hope sheds more light on the relationship between ORDA, the Conservatory, and the region.
The Board of Directors of the Belleayre Conservatory announced Monday that they have passed a resolution taking strong issue with the comptroller’s findings.
“The very suggestion that the state should somehow get a cut of the charitable contributions that make the festival possible puts the ability to raise these donations in jeopardy,” said Conservatory Executive Director Mel Litoff in a prepared statement. “Without them, the festival is not possible and the citizens of this region and the economic future of its towns would be the losers. The loss of the festival would compromise both the state and ORDA’s mission of economic development and job creation.
Litoff says the suggestion by the audit report that ORDA should demand a portion of these charitable donations shows a lack of understanding of the relationship between the two organizations, a relationship the state legislature clearly understood when it mandated that ORDA do all it could to support the festival and other year-round activities as it assumed responsibility over Belleayre’s operations.
Similar remarks came Monday from Crossroads Ventures, the local company awaiting approval to move ahead with plans to build a $365 million resort that would handshake with a state plan to expand Belleayre, a multi-million dollar plan that ORDA will have a lot to say about.
“ORDA was chartered as a public-benefits corporation, not a for-profit corporation whose only purpose is to return a profit to the people of New York,” said Crossroads spokesman Gary Gailes. “In the case of the Belleayre Ski Center it means supporting a public recreational and cultural amenity that seeks to improve the quality of life for people in the surrounding community while stimulating the regional economy.”
Gailes notes that ORDA has generated hundreds of millions of dollars in economic spinoff for the regional economy in the Adirondacks, and that he expects ORDA’s local presence will have a similar impact here.
“There is no reason to believe that ORDA cannot do the same for the Central Catskills if given its fair share of support,” he said.
ORDA’s Director of Finance, Padraig Power, offered explanations for some of the practices the comptroller took issue with, but did not dismiss the findings. “ORDA management will take the necessary steps in the upcoming months to address and correct all areas of concerns as noted above,” Power wrote.