State to wield budget ax on Belleayre

By Jay Braman Jr.
State-owned Belleayre Mountain Ski Center might suffer the budget ax this year, experiencing severe cuts to its 2008-2009 ski season operations. Employees, skiers, local business owners and the leadership of the Coalition to Save Belleayre have been scrambling since Friday trying to find out how bad it will be for the mountain come winter.
While some information suggests that even a total shut down of the ski center for the 2008-2009 season is under consideration, some cuts have already been put into motion.
The annual October Fall Festival, slated for the weekend of October 11-12, has been cancelled. Belleayre’s Superintendent Tony Lanza refused to comment and directed press calls to the New York State Department of Environmental Conservation’s (DEC) press office in Albany.
Maureen Wren, a spokesperson for DEC, which oversees Belleayre’s budget, said Monday that nothing was official about the festival’s cancellation. But when calls are made to Belleayre for information about the festival, staffers say that it will not occur. Vendors already signed up to rent space at the festival were notified Friday of the cancellation and that refunds were in the works for those that already paid for their rental space.

Tip of the iceberg
No Fall Festival is just the tip of the iceberg says Joe Kelly, chairman of the Coalition to Save Belleayre. Kelly said there are reports that if DEC does open the ski center, considered the economic linchpin for much the Route 28 Corridor in the colder months, it will have only one chairlift running to the top of the mountain and only a baker’s dozen of ski trails open.
Wren said that, like the Fall Festival, none of these scenarios has been set in stone.
“There haven’t been any decisions made about Belleayre,” she said.
Asked if there were plans not to open Belleayre this year she said “That’s not the case at this time.”
When operating fully, Belleayre boasts the Catskills only cat-access skiing and a widened and improved half pipe and Area 51 Terrain Park. With 47 trails, parks and glades and eight lifts, including a new high-speed quad, Belleayre Mountain has certainly evolved over the years, especially since the 1980s when it faced closure. Skier visits have grown from 70,000 in 1995 to more than 175,000 skiers with visitors from all over the world.
The news of cut backs comes against a backdrop of an announcement that Governor Paterson last week vetoed legislation that called for a blue ribbon panel to investigate whether Belleayre has an unfair advantage against privately owned Hunter and Windham ski centers in nearby Greene County.
Kelly said that some people in his organization believe the budget cuts are related to the lobbying Greene County has done to curtail Belleayre’s operation. “We certainly hope that this is not the case. But it makes no sense to cancel (the Fall Festival) one of your biggest money-making events in a single year,” said Kelly. “And once you are open and operating, it makes absolutely no sense to only operate part of your capital investment. I don’t know if people in state government are caving to pressure from Greene County to hold Belleayre Mountain back, but we certainly intend to look at that possibility.”
Kelly said he understands the need for cuts and the fact that everyone in the state has to share in the pain of the current economy.
“But this is going to be way more than our fair share,” he added. “…We’re facing a huge budget cut, the extent of which is only now becoming apparent.”