There were radically different stories being told last week in two Adirondack communities located below state owned ski resorts. In Wilmington, residents were talking about their community’s newly recognized esteem in the bicycling world. With the help of ORDA’s Whiteface Mountain, the DEC, local bicyclists, bike businesses and local officials, Wilmington is on the verge of becoming one of the premiere mountain biking destinations in America.
A different story was being told in North Creek. Despite being at the foot of ORDA’s Gore Mountain Ski Area, local reporter Jon Alexander wrote last week that “North Creek’s small Main Street business district now touts six vacant properties and more are on the way. Within the last few months, a wave of businesses, cafes, restaurants and bars have closed or announced they are going out of business.”
Whiteface has more terrain and a longer season than Gore, but thanks to its proximity to metropolitan and suburban areas, the smaller mountain still draws more visitors. From the 2005/2006 to the 2009/2010 seasons Gore drew 221,084 skiers on average, while Whiteface drew an average of just 187,659. (According to ORDA’s 2010 Annual Report, that hasn’t translated into more revenue for Gore [pdf]). Despite the greater ability to draw visitors to its slopes, Gore Mountain management has failed to support serious off-season endeavors while Whiteface has helped turn Wilmington into a “mountain bike mecca”.
It’s been a long time coming for Wilmington. Ski resorts started adding summer lift service mountain biking in the late 1980s and early 1990s, but ORDA never really got on board, failing to even open the Whiteface Memorial Highway to bicycles until 2010. In 2005, with mountain biking all but dead at Whiteface and Gore, Lake Placid’s High Peaks Cyclery took over management of the Whiteface Bike Park. Then Wilmington’s Flume Trail System opened in 2009, the first trail system on Adirondack Forest Preserve land designed for mountain biking. The Flume includes about two miles of trails at Whiteface and the rest on the Wilmington Wild Forest. It connects with the Whiteface Trail and the new Beaver Brook Trail System, which opened last week.
These developments have spawned additional bike races (including adaptive bike events) such as this year’s inaugural Wilmington-Whiteface 100, a qualifier for America’s most prestigious mountain bike race, the Leadville 100. The Wilmington Bike Fest, held on the same weekend, drew plenty of its own buzz and thousands of bike enthusiasts to a growing number of local bike trail systems [new website] and races.
Meanwhile in North Creek, bicycling is all but dead. Gore management, which critics say never put much effort into developing a year-round resort facility, has essentially given up on drawing summer visitors and in the process has left North Creek without its tourism anchor for most of the year.
“The comparison of summer operations schedules at Gore and Whiteface does not consider the differences in operations,” Gore Mountain manager Mike Pratt told me when the question was raised in 2009. “Whiteface has the Memorial Highway and does very well with their summer season. At Gore Mountain, we only have a scenic ride and a bbq. We are making many improvements, are on a tremendous growth curve, are thankful for our gondola, but are not a summer destination.”
Local resident Richard Carlson disagrees with that assessment. “Like it or not – Gore is the North Creek area’s largest attraction – winter and summer,” Carlson told me. “They drive the local economy, both for generating day visitors and overnight guests. Any Summer visitors to Gore will at least give North Creek a chance that they will wander (or be directed) into town to patronize local businesses. Now – there is no hope of that – there are no Summer Visitors. The leading attraction is closed.”
According to mountain biking proponent “Downhill Mike” Scheur, the potential for summer mountain bike business is enormous. “At least 25 resorts within a few hours of Lake Placid run their lifts in the summer for bikes,” he told the Almanack‘s Christie Sausa earlier this year. “Whistler actually profits more in the summer than the winter now, due to their bike park.” (The Whistler Mountain Bike Park celebrated its 10th anniversary in 2008, it sees an average of 100,000 bikers each summer.)
While North Creek struggles with drawing summer visitors, Whiteface and Wilmington have made themselves into an emerging summer destination. The Whiteface-Wilmington partnership did the hard work and it’s paying off with thousands of visitors, big names and bigger events. Gore and North Creek could have had that bike tourism success, had Gore Mountain management not been so short-sighted.
Among the missed possibilities are major bike races and touring events from Lake George, along the Hudson River (possibly including the proposed North Creek-Tahawus right-of-way bike path and the Hudson River Recreation Area), the Vanderwacker and Wilcox Lake Wild Forests, or down Gore and into the Historic North Creek Ski Bowl.
When the new gondola was installed a dozen years ago, many in the community believed they could be a mountain biking mecca. Instead, Gore offered no leadership and North Creek’s only serious bike shop on Main Street closed several years ago and remains vacant.
More recently, the promise of a huge slope-side resort development has all but evaporated, businesses are closing, and the celebrated North Creek revival appears to have stalled.
Gore Mountain’s marketing slogan “More Gore” may be catchy, but it’s far from reality – local residents, local officials, and local media should start asking serious questions about why North Creek is getting less Gore, instead of more.
UPDATE: This post has been corrected to suggest the Vanderwacker and Wilcox Lake Wild Forests, or the Hudson River Rec Area, would be appropriate backcountry places for bike events, rather than the Siamese Ponds Wilderness Area.