May 14, 2008: Great pride in Belleayre Mountain

in

To The Editor:
I recently returned to Belleayre Mountain for the first time in 18 years. I first skied the Old Peekamoose Trail in December of 1931, almost two decades before the ski center was built. As an adult, I worked at Highmount Ski Center in its early years and was a builder of and major stockholder in Plattekill Ski Center in Roxbury. In the early 1960s I came from private enterprise to Belleayre, rising up through the ranks from ski patrol to the post of superintendent.
Growing up, we had thousands of hotel rooms including the 400-room Grand Hotel and two golf courses in Shandaken and one in Middletown. All of these hotels, ski centers (Belleayre, Highmount and even Shayne’s, all on the Belleayre access road), golf courses and other related businesses were built before we had state-of-the-art septic systems, before we had any pesticide or pollution control, before we had any regulations from either New York State or New York City. Yet the waters of Birch Creek and the Esopus remained pure enough to drink, unfiltered and were always known for their superb trout fishing.
Before Belleayre, there was only summer business and once unemployment insurance became available, everyone in the region — hotel workers, golf course staff, contractors and their employees and others in the community — took advantage of it for about 20 weeks a year. But summer business declined and the need to create some sort of winter economy became critical. Seven years of studies were done in the Catskill Region to prove what everyone locally already knew. In the entire Catskill Region the best place to ski, the place that naturally got the most snow, and held the snow for the longest period of time, was Belleayre.
The State of New York recognized the need to allow its citizens to use the Catskill Forest Preserve for recreational purposes. The state also understood the need for economic development in the region. So the legislature (in two consecutive years) and then the people of the state (in the third year) passed a constitutional amendment to create Belleayre Mt. Ski Center, which at that time, was limited in size to a maximum of 20 miles of slopes and trails. The people of the state reaffirmed this decision by passing a second constitutional amendment in 1987, calling for the expansion of Belleayre Mt. to 25 miles of slopes and trails.
Belleayre served very well as both a recreational use area for the people of the State of New York and as an economic catalyst for the region, and it still does. The need for it to continue in these missions can only be questioned by people who are so rich that they don’t need affordable skiing opportunities, or so wealthy that they don’t need jobs.
When I started at Belleayre, we had just six permanent year ’round workers. Today there are 100. In the winter time, upwards of 600 people can work there instead of collecting unemployment insurance.
These are great jobs, career track jobs, and people should be pushing for more of them, not less. During my visit to Belleayre in the first week of April I made a thorough, unescorted tour of the entire mountain. I talked to both old and new employees, to people who have skied Belleayre for 50 years, to those who are new to the area and also spoke with some local business people. I saw people I skied with and people I worked with, and I saw their children and their grandchildren. They are the heart and soul of Belleayre and it is heart and soul that keep Belleayre out front.
I truly don’t know much about Superintendent Tony Lanza. I’ve only met him briefly a few times. But I do know he has surrounded himself with true professionals and his crew has done a remarkable job of bringing Belleayre into the 21st century while at the same time hanging on to the history and tradition that have drawn people there for 58 years. The area has been well preserved and well managed. If Hunter and Windham are suffering, it isn’t because of what Belleayre is, it is because of what they are not.
In the last decade, those areas stopped being ski centers and turned into real estate kingdoms. They basically provide skiing as an amenity to people who can pay a starting rate of $500,000 for a condo. They’ve invested millions and millions of dollars in new hotels, houses, time-shares and condos, with real estate sales which recently have run in the range of $1 million or more for lots not even a single acre in size. So they are doing well in their real estate missions and Belleayre is doing well in its mission, which is not to create a profit for owners but to serve as an economic catalyst and to let families of modest means have the opportunity to ski.
Everyone should be clamoring to grow Belleayre, not to shrink it, because as we can see in the rest of the region, if you don’t grow you die. What is making Belleayre successful now is not pricing or unfair competition, it is people, the people who work there and the people who ski there. It’s quite amazing that a state-run area is run with such a passion for perfection.
I was at Belleayre on Sunday, April 13. There were many people skiing including members of my family. People were raving about the great conditions there while Hunter and Windham were both closed because of a lack of snow. I heard through the grapevine they were complaining that Belleayre had made too much snow. If they had any complaint, it should have been about the geographically ideal location that allows Belleayre to hold its snow so long into the spring season. I think Tony Lanza and his crew were doing what the State of New York was paying them to do, which is to run a ski center the way it should be run.
As I left the area, it gave me a feeling of great pride knowing that Belleayre Mountain is still doing what it’s always been best known for, serving the public by providing the best skiing conditions possible on well-groomed and maintained trails. It’s the way it should be. The people of the Central Catskills and the State of New York should be proud of the fact that they have both a gem and a treasure ($) in their back yard. Four generations of my family have skied Belleayre. If my grandkids get with it I hope to see the fifth generation there before it’s too late.

Robert A. Munro,
Highmount