SHANDAKEN, N.Y. — Snow boarders carved long curves across the crowd-free slopes of Belleayre Mountain ski center on a chilly weekday morning and there was elbow room in the cozy lodge dominated by retirement-age skiers and area college kids on break.
This state-run ski center deep in the Catskill Mountains is overshadowed by bigger, glitzier ski centers in the Northeast — though there are plans that could change that.
New York is considering a proposal to boost the money-losing ski center by transferring management from the state's environmental agency to the state authority that runs two Adirondack ski centers. Also, a private developer's proposal for a high-mountain resort adjacent to Belleayre is showing signs of progress after years on the drawing board.
Proponents believe changes to Belleayre could draw more visitors to a corner of the Catskills that depends heavily on tourism. Hope is high that shifting Belleayre's management from the Department of Environmental Conservation to the Olympic Regional Development Authority will beef up marketing to the massive New York City market to the south.
"We come pretty far down the ladder when push comes to shove and I don't think that's going to happen with ORDA," said Joe Kelly, chairman of the Coalition to Save Belleayre Mountain, a citizens' group. "ORDA's in the ski business, they're in the tourist business, they're in the economic development business, and that's what Belleayre and the region needs."
New York owns three ski centers: Whiteface and Gore in the Adirondacks and Belleayre in the Catskills. Belleayre is the smallest, which seemed to suit some skiers here earlier this week. Skiers here say they like the beginners' trails and the friendly, family atmosphere — a contrast to what one woman jokingly called the high testosterone levels at some more crowded mountains. Belleayre also is one of the closest ski areas to New York City, about two-and-half hours from Manhattan.
"It's a little bit small, but that's definitely part of its charm," said Ellen Fauerbach, of nearby Denver, before heading to the slopes. Isabella Hofinga, a local college student sipping a Red Bull by the fire after a run, agreed. She feels comfortable enough to come here by herself.
"I've gone to this mountain since I was a kid," she said. "It's a lot nicer than the other mountains."
Belleayre averaged about 164,000 visitors in the past three seasons and expenditures have been outpacing revenues by more than $3.7 million a year. Last winter, with the state under severe financial strain, Belleayre laid off 45 permanent employees and offered them seasonal employment.
Belleayre is run by the DEC, the state regulatory agency charged with protecting New York's air, land and water. In contrast, Whiteface and Gore are run by ORDA, a quasi-government agency created to manage facilities for the 1980 Winter Olympics at Lake Placid.
A commission created by Gov. Andrew Cuomo to find efficiencies in state government proposed last month placing Belleayre under ORDA, too. The Spending and Government Efficiency Commission said an ORDA-run Belleayre could respond to the market better and eventually become self-sustaining.
DEC officials say they are reviewing the proposal, which would require legislative approval.
Though ORDA depends on state money for about 15 percent of its overall revenue, its Gore and Whiteface facilities make money. ORDA has an expansive marketing program for its ski centers that includes billboards, print, television and radio and stretches into the New York City, Philadelphia, Montreal and Ottawa markets, according to ORDA president and chief executive officer Ted Blazer.
"We do World Cup events, we do other types of events that get us media exposure and sometimes that's not only nationwide exposure, that's world exposure," Blazer said.
Blazer would not address the possibility of managing Belleayre, but some skiers hope ORDA can harness its reach on behalf of Belleayre, too.
Some local residents worry that ORDA, which is based 150 miles north in Lake Placid, might not be sensitive to Catskill-area issues and would want a local resident to have a seat on the ORDA board. Others question whether ORDA could run Belleayre for less money than DEC.
"There's no guarantee that ORDA will do that cheaper. I think the cheaper option would be to keep it with DEC," said Roger Wall of the local Catskill Heritage Alliance.
Wall is concerned that a Belleayre management transfer could aid the development of a proposed mega-resort adjacent to the ski center that his group opposes. Plans for the "Belleayre Resort at Catskill Park" have been on the drawing board for more than a decade, with developer Crossroads Ventures seeking regulatory approval to build two hotels, timeshare townhouses and a golf course next to the ski center.
New York state and Crossroads reached an "agreement in principle" in 2007 for a scaled back version of the original resort plan. Under that plan, the state last month bought 1,200 acres of land on the east side of the mountain for permanent protection. The 2007 agreement also calls on the state to expand its ski center.
Wall said the state's recent financial troubles make the multi-million expansion of Belleayre more difficult. He believes ORDA, with its own budget separate from the state, might have more flexibility to fund it than DEC.
Crossroad's Dean Gitter contended the state is committed to the upgrades, no matter which agency runs Belleayre.
The DEC says it is waiting for Crossroads to resubmit a key document necessary for environmental review, which could happen in the coming months. That would set the stage for public comments, a final decision by the state and review by the two local towns.
That means two pivotal proposals on the future of Belleayre could be considered this year.
"As long as they don't change the feel," said Hofinga as she warmed up at Belleayre's lodge, "it's nice by the fire."