Editorial: Governor, Make Resort Call

By Dick Sanford, Editor & Publisher
The year was 1998. A 40-year-old guy named Andrew Cuomo was making a name for himself as a tough prosecutor while serving as New York State’s Attorney General, Google was founded, Frank Sinatra died, Mark McGuire broke Roger Maris’ single-season homerun record, and President Bill Clinton was denying allegations about a relationship with “that woman.”
Closer to home, members of this year’s graduating class at Margaretville Central School were two-year-old toddlers, and a group of investors headed by Managing Partner Dean Gitter of Oliverea announced plans to build a resort complex that would straddle the Ulster County Town of Shandaken and the Delaware County Town of Middletown.
This coming weekend, when I watch those long-ago second graders graduate from high school, it’s going to be impossible for me to wrap my brain around the concept that it could take longer to do an environmental review of what is now a modest-sized resort and golf course than it did for those second graders to work their way through school. How could this happen? It makes no sense. Worse, the process isn’t even over.

Give up the fight
Other than a handful of environmental extremists who seem to be against everything and for nothing, it doesn’t appear, at least publically, that there are even any opponents to the project, now known as The Belleayre Resort at Catskill Park.
When critics first looked at plans for the resort they complained that it was too big and dubbed it “Mega Resort.” “Save the Mountain” read the bumper stickers and lawn signs.
Over time, to satisfy the critics, the developers downsized the resort. Gone was more than half of the entire resort that was deemed to be in an area that was too environmentally sensitive. Gone were two of the three golf courses that were originally planned. Gone was a ridge-top spa.
Slowly, the critics came around and even the Catskill Center, who had lead the fight against the resort, helped broker a compromise that would let a smaller, more environmentally friendly resort move forward.
Why? When the local real estate market blew up in 2008 following the implosion of the national housing bubble, nearly everyone in the region looked around and realized that the resort monster had been tamed and that the local economy, or lack thereof, was a far more important issue.

Where’s the business?
A horrible economy, hidden by a decade-long real estate boom, had snuck up on everyone. School populations were in decline, restaurants began to close, Main Street had vacant shops and other small businesses began to fail. A devastating flood here didn’t help and a brutal hurricane a year later, that tore up the coast from southern New Jersey to New England, sent many of our second homeowners into a tailspin.
And the light went on. The Belleayre Resort at Catskill Park, along with an expanded Belleayre Ski Center, was capable of becoming the economic driver of the entire region. It didn’t take a genius to figure out that a $400 million building project, regardless of whether or not the resort is ultimately successful, would be a huge economic boom for a large area surrounding the resort site.

Public support strong
The New York State Department of Environmental Conservation (DEC) held another round of public hearings last year and solicited yet more public comment. One speaker after another told an administrative law judge at Belleayre how important the resort was to the future of the area. Public support for the project was overwhelming from all sides.
The mainstream environmental community admitted that the resort poses no threat to the environment of the Catskills. The business community testified over and over that the resort may well represent the last hope for a sustainable economy in the Central Catskills. Education professionals testified that the resort, along with the 400 full-time jobs it will bring, is capable of stemming the tide of declining school populations.
Yet here we are, going on a year later, and the DEC, in spite of new promises to finish the review by the end of this summer, has yet to render a decision on the resort. When I tell my out-of-town friends that it has taken the DEC 14 years to do an environmental review of this project and render an up or down decision, which it hasn’t yet even done, they look at me like I was from Mars. It’s no wonder that New York has earned the reputation as the most unfriendly business climate of any state in the nation. In this case, it’s well deserved.

Governor likes us
All of this in spite of the fact that Gov. Cuomo seems to have taken a special interest in Margaretville and the surrounding area. He was here, and got wet, during the last flood, he was here again helping with flood cleanup and he made yet another appearance to announce that he was making millions of dollars available for flood mitigation projects. And them, he later announced that another $3 million was going to be available because of the high quality of the application submitted for the original money.
Several local business leaders have spoken with the governor about the project and made clear to him how important the resort is to our future. More than once he has expressed his support for the resort. And yet, the project remains deeply mired within the DEC.

Enhance the investment
I hope that the $6 million that the governor is making available to Margaretville for flood mitigation isn’t wasted in building a flood-proof community of empty storefronts, and a half-empty school, while investors stand ready to pump $400 million into the local economy in a project capable of creating an economic revival, with private funds and no environmental or social costs.
If Mr. Gitter and his associates were talking about building a casino, I could readily understand the project being way more controversial, yet the DEC seems ready to green light a casino someplace in the Albany area or Sullivan or Orange County faster than a gambler can roll a pair of dice from one end of the craps table to the other.
I wish Gov. Cuomo would pick up the phone, call DEC Commissioner Joseph Martens and ask him for some answers to the questions that baffle us all: What’s going on? How can this process possibly take so long? With so much to gain and with so little to lose, how are we not supporting this project? Please governor, make the call.