Monday, October 7, 2013

Commentary: Stop Using Big Tupper As A Pawn

Big-Tupper-Trail-Map-792x1024ARISE (Adirondack Residents Intent on Saving their Economy), the volunteer group that ran Big Tupper Ski Area for the winters of 2010-11 and 2011-12, recently announced that Big Tupper will be open for the 2013-14 season. The ski area did not operate last winter due to a shortfall of funds and volunteer burnout.

Keeping any ski area open and running is great for the sport. Small, local hills like Big Tupper are vitally important because they provide a lower-cost alternative and they introduce people to skiing. Kudos to the volunteers at Big Tupper for all their efforts over the past few years.  But it’s not all good news.

ARISE has bridged the ski area’s funding gap by:

  • Selling a groomer (after selling off the snowmaking equipment several years earlier)
  • Formerly paid employees will now be volunteers
  • Using funds saved by not operating last winter
  • Additional community fund-raising
  • Raising ticket prices

Obviously that’s not a sustainable model for running a ski area.

Why, you may ask, aren’t the developers who own the Big Tupper Ski Area funding its operation? After all, Big Tupper is a key component of the Adirondack Club and Resort, the huge (and hugely controversial) development proposed for Tupper Lake that includes a marina, equestrian center, second homes and “great camps” in addition to the ski center. The ACR developers received APA approval for their project nearly two years ago.

A year ago, when it was announced Big Tupper would not operate for the 2012-13 winter, Jim LaValley (ARISE chairman) stated:

We were negotiating a financial assist from several purchasers/investors of the ACR. I was in discussions with several prospective buyers who wanted to make sure Big Tupper would continue in the 2012-2013 ski season. I told them what our financial losses were over the past two seasons. We told them that even as a volunteer organization, we have averaged $160K per year in operational expenses. This does not include volunteer hours. They were very willing, until the Article 78 lawsuit was filed in March… Over the next few weeks, some of the investors that were looking to contribute somewhere between $100K and $200K will be coming forward to discuss their intentions. These discussions will be reported.” [Emphasis mine]

So, blame it on the tree huggers (whose Article 78 lawsuit is actually against the APA, not the developers), and ignore the financial and economic reality that ACR may never be built. Of course the phantom investors never came forward, and a year later there’s still no money for Big Tupper from the developers or investors, despite LaValley’s and the developers’ confidence that the lawsuit will soon be resolved in their favor. You can read more about the current status of the lawsuit and the ACR project here.

It’s time for ACR to put their money where their mouth is and to stop using the Big Tupper Ski Area as a pawn. The people of Tupper Lake deserve more from the developers than the vague promises of eventual investment in the ski area.

And it’s time for ARISE to confront the reality that it will be years before Big Tupper sees any kind of financial support from ACR. Investment in the ski area is contingent upon successful sales of “great camp” lots, and even under ACR’s most optimistic sales projections, that investment will not occur until at least several years into the development plans.

What’s ARISE’s plan next year, sell off the chairlifts? And what’s ARISE’s endgame, to run a year-by-year shoestring operation, milking the hopes of their community, and eventually handing over the keys so that the developers can profit by selling great camps to investment bankers and hedge fund managers who will want to “cut first tracks on their own private ski slopes” ? That last phrase, by the way, was taken from ACR’s own marketing website, long since taken down.

So, in case you haven’t guessed by now, the likelihood of me skiing at Big Tupper this winter is a snowball’s chance in hell. But that’s not just because I think Big Tupper has become a giant over-politicized cluster-you-know-what. It’s also for the simple reason that Big Tupper is well beyond day trip range from Saratoga, and I’d have to drive right past the front door of the vastly superior ski areas in North Creek and Lake Placid to get there. Hell, I can reach most of Vermont (gasp!) in less time than Big Tupper. Which of course is one of the fundamental reasons why the entire ACR concept is flawed from the start.

Big Tupper used to be owned by the Town of Tupper Lake. McCauley Mountain (Old Forge) and Mount Pisgah (Saranac Lake) are successful municipally-owned ski hills. Maybe that ownership model could eventually provide a pathway for the investment in Big Tupper that Tupper Lake deserves. I don’t pretend to have the solution, but I know that ACR ain’t it.

There’s probably not much that I’d agree with Jim LaValley and the ACR developers on, except for LaValley’s closing words in a recent Adirondack Enterprise article:

“We want everybody to think snow. Think hard, and think snow.”


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Jeff Farbaniec, of Saratoga County, is an avid telemark skier and a 46er who writes The Saratoga Skier and Hiker, a blog of his primarily Adirondack outdoor adventures.

Jeff's emphasis at the Almanack is on the ski sports - everything and anything related to Adirondack skiing. Jeff lives in Wilton, just south of the Blue Line, with his wife and their two young children.

38 Responses

  1. AdkBuddy says:

    Yes the lawsuit is against the APA but it’s sole purpose is to stop the development. That’s just the way these frivolous lawsuits work Also, ARISE does not own the chairlift so what you are suggesting they might do would be a felony. How about you outsiders minding your own business for a change?

    • John Warren says:

      Hey Buddy,

      Unless you and your neighbors are going to start buying those mansions, I’m pretty sure your ACR project requires “outsiders” like Jeff.

      It’s attitudes like yours that keep people from visiting Tupper Lake, let alone buying a home or starting a business there.

      John Warren

    • Wally says:

      Yeah, you’re doing so well on your own.

  2. Wren Hawk says:

    Excellent viewpoint. Glad someone pointed this out. Thanks Jeff.

    Uh, Adk Buddy, “those outsiders” are precisely the people this community (ACR, Tupper Lake and more) wants to rely on – people coming here for tourism – even just a day; at one extreme of that model is wanting people to buy great lots and build houses no one else here can afford likely to be used a few weeks a year. I’ll take the guy in Saratoga who comes up here religiously to climb mountains, ski, spend money in restaurants and small businesses over the third or forth homeowner any day. Though we might need both let’s try the more sustainable model first. (And if you think wealthy absent homeowners are a route to prosperity look at Aspen CO or Sag Harbor NY.)

    Instead of throwing our hands up and saying this community can’t survive without prisons, government jobs and multiple homeowners buying great lots – why aren’t we and our civic leaders more effectively (and continuously) exploring the partnerships and industries that could establish here? I’m sure that is hard but it’s where the long-term solutions for the human community are.

    Maybe there is another model that would help the Tupper SKi Area…I’m sure folks have worked on that but maybe it should be tried again.

    • John says:

      Reply to “one extreme of that model is wanting people to buy great lots and build houses no one else here can afford likely to be used a few weeks a year”

      Exactly what is the problem with a handful seldom occupied homes on thousands of acres – the great camp lots. If a wealthy family cannot build a place on a couple hundred, or a thousand acres of cut over industrial forest, then what is a regular resident going to be allowed to do?

      Is the goal ‘no rich people’? Or smaller lots for regular people, or what? A handful of seldom used homes on thousands of acres is not an environmental disaster by any measure.

      I don’t live there but I have to say this lawsuit makes no sense to me. And if you assume it is going to fail then let the thing move ahead – you’ll get the outcome you want anyway. The argument is really wacky.

      • Alan Senbaugh says:

        While no realistic person expects the development to succeed financially, the fear from an environmental perspective is that a few great camps would be completed and then the roads and infrastructure are forever, fragmenting the entire area.
        Then you have a zombie sub-development or ex-urban monster feeding just a couple millionaire mansions. It’s like that all over the SW since the recession hit. That is why the lawsuit does make sense. It’s not a personal attack on the developer or the people of Tupper.

        • Paul says:

          Just make sure that any PILOT program requires the developers to put down substantial money. If they can’t then the deal is done. The lawsuit is over and one side will walk away happy, and the other will realize that if you want a successful project you have to do it with a firm that has deep enough pockets. This should be the town and the counties decision if they make the wrong one than they learn the hard way. The state and special interest groups can’t be their baby sitters.

        • Mark says:

          Leave it to Alan to generalize on something he know little about. You have no idea how the ACR plans to finance their project nor do you know anything about Tupper Lake or the mountain. Mt Morris has been “fragmented” by logging for over 100 years. You can see the ski slope cut into the side of the mountain for over 30 miles away. There is no validity to the lawsuit and the only reference to zombies he should make is to the radical environmentalists who cling to their elitist views.

          • Generalizing Alan says:

            Why are you drawing the conclusion that I know nothing about Tupper Lake and ACR? Read the definitions and literature regarding, Fragmentation, Perforation and the effects of a exurban development. You are letting your emotions get the best of with out looking at the consequences and reality of the proposal. Unfortunately the APA did the same thing. Why don’t you try writing a letter to the editor and attack some more people who have actually looked at the literature.

            • Mark says:

              The road to the great camp lots on the eastern side of the project already exists. The land is already fragmented. You just don’t accept facts contrary to your ideology. You can use your exurban impact studies all you want but the APA has overwhelmingly approved this project 10-1. The state of NY already owns 50% of the land in the park which will remain forever wild. Private investors should be allowed to construct private projects within the scope of local land use codes under APA and DEC permits and supervision. You and the author think that you know more than they do but thankfully that is not the case.

  3. Longtimeskier says:

    Wow Jeff, You nailed it. All the locals know that the ARISE group is just a front organization for the ACR. The last thing in the ACRs’ plan is Big Tupper, it’s always been the carrot they have dangled to get local support for their project. Once the ACR sold off all the perfectly good snowmaking equipment(contrary to the ACR asertions that it needed to be replaced) they lost a lot of local support because they all knew it was bought and installed by the former owners at great expense and it really put out tons of snow.

    ADKbuddy sounds more like ACRbuddy, obviously has partaken more than his fill of the ACR Koolaid.

  4. Rod Morrill says:

    I agree that Tupper Lake must rely on “outsiders” to be successful. I am an “outsider” just to the north, but I am also a volunteer for ARISE and a supporter of Big Tupper, and the ACR. I think this is the type of support they need there. They do not need “outsiders” coming in there to manage and control the use of the land, like the Adirondack Council and others are trying to do. That is why we have the APA, and they gave their approval to this project nearly two (2) years ago. Proceed with the development!

    Old Ski Bum

    • Wayno says:

      The Adirondack Council has not challenged the APA decision and is NOT a party to this lawsuit. I personally do not see any merit in the ACR business plan but if the people of Tupper Lake support it so strongly and the APA has vetted and okayed it I am not opposed to it. I also think the Sierra club getting involved at this late date to obstruct things is wrong and have suspended my membership in protest.

  5. Paul says:

    “It’s time for ACR to put their money where their mouth is and to stop using the Big Tupper Ski Area as a pawn.”

    They don’t have any money. No investors -no money.

    This is a little like the debate over the affordable care act. Republicans are afraid it might succeed. It sounds like there is agreement by many that the ACR will fail. Jeff certainly thinks so. So why not just drop the lawsuit and let the project fail on its own merits. Wouldn’t that solve the whole debate once and for all?

    My place in the Adirondacks is a lot closer to Whiteface but I would also ski at Tupper if it was a good set up.

    • Jeff says:

      “They don’t have any money. No investors -no money.”
      That should be a huge red flag.

      “Why not just drop the lawsuit and let the project fail on its own merits?”
      Someone’s going to be left holding the bag if / when the project fails: the PILOT backers, the town.

      “I would also ski at Tupper if it was a good set up.”
      That’s exactly the problem. There’s nothing in ACR’s plan that will make Big Tupper “a good set up” anytime soon if ever at all. We visit the Lake Placid / Whiteface / High Peaks regions quite a bit on day trips as well as mult-day trips, 4 seasons. I think we’ve visited the Wild Center almost every year since it opened. Big Tupper could be part of our plans, but not in its current state.

      • Paul says:

        I am just saying that I don’t think that you can make a good pitch to investors till you have all this worked out. And until the do that they will have no money to invest in the ski area. Seems pretty tough to sit down with an investor and show them the plans and then have to qualify your pitch with “and one minor detail I have to mention”. There is a lawsuit hanging over all this. Hey, wait, where are you going!!!…

        What is in the bag to be holding? I assume they are going to phase this project. So if the town wants to give it a whirl then give it a whirl. Given the risk I would recommend that the PILOT have a substantial amount of money held for problems if the come up. They may not be able to come up with those funds but at least at that point they would have been given the chance to raise funds without a suit hanging over the whole thing.

        Like you I don’t want the town to get screwed but it sounds like they want to (and deserve) to partner with this group and give it a shot.

        Until all that happens why would they invest anything in the ski area. Investors are there to make a profit not charity for a ski hill.

        So there are no plans in the project to renovate the ski area? Why are we even having this discussion?

  6. Paul says:

    The “outsiders” are the insiders. These are (or are becoming tourist towns). For Tupper Lake the lumbering days are over.

  7. John M says:

    “Partnerships and Industries” in the Adirondacks, are you kidding , you think you see a lot of law suits over the ARC project?

    The volunteers that have run Big Tupper the 2 years it was open did it for the local kids. And how do I come up with such a statement, because I talked with the people working there, and I talked to the kids while riding up the lift with them. Maybe they are pawns but the kids loved having something to do on the weekends in the winter in Tupper. And if we get good snow this winter you should ski Big Tupper, it has some great terrain.

    I’m from Connecticut, but I lived in Tupper for several years. I was a forester for several years and now work in outdoor recreation, I see the situation from both sides, and my conclusion is that Tupper needs help and ARC developing this piece of privately owned land may really help the town and is not going to destroy the wilderness of the Adirondacks.

    That Said, in my opinion, the Essex Chain should be the States 2’nd Canoe Area or have a Wilderness designation. I lived in Newcomb and worked at Huntington Forest back in the ’70’s too.

    Lets Al enjoy the Adirondacks, and it’s good to see that we all care about Tupper Lake and the park as a whole.

    John M.

    • Jeff says:

      “The volunteers that have run Big Tupper the 2 years it was open did it for the local kids.”

      There’s nothing wrong with that. In fact, skiing needs more grassroots community hills. As I said earlier, kudos to the volunteers. However, ARISE’s stated purpose is to promote economic growth in the Tupper Lake area. ARISE is kidding themselves if they think that opening Big Tupper for the local kids is going to have much of an economic impact. I think just about everyone is in agreement that getting the ski area upgraded and running as a viable mid-sized ski hill would be a positive thing. The problem is there’s a huge gulf between that goal and Big Tupper’s current state, and no credible evidence that ACR has the wherewithal (or possibly even the intent) to make it happen.

  8. Paul says:

    Let’s all stop trying to be the lifeguards for the ACR. It is standing on the end of the diving board and Protect runs up and jumps in front of them “wait don’t jump the water is very dangerous here”. “The lifeguards don’t not know what they are talking about, it isn’t safe to jump here”. (I only say this sine it was something like a vote for 10-1 that their permits were approved). Let them jump and sink or swim!

    • Paul says:

      Again I am not talking about building necessarily but remove the obstacles to raising funds.

      • Background says:

        Paul, The obstacles to funding this run very deep. Just google Michael D Foxman and check out his involvement in the Sunrise S & L in Florida in the late 80’s. the bank he was president of cost the US taxpayers 680 MILLION to bail it out. He will never get any form of conventional financing. Check out the other main man in this ACR development, Thomas C Lawson. As of today he still has 3 outstanding federal tax liens for non payment of income tax for 2007, 2008, and 2009. They total aprox $540,000. Check the Franklin county tax records, he is way behind on all his Property and school taxes, on his personal property and the properties owned by the ACR. As of Jan 2013 his house was under forclosure for non payment of over $720000. He has been dragged into small claims court locally for non payment to local suppliers and contractors. He will never get any conventional financing for this project.(nor will the ACR as an entity) The PILOT is the main source of funding proposed for the project, as stated clearly in the APA application. I know the developer and supporters say there are buyers/investors just waiting in the wings ready to plunk down millions. But we’ve been hearing this same old yarn for years.

        • Paul says:

          I understand all that. Thanks, I have seen it all here many times. Put financial terms on the PILOT that require the developers to put down money to limit the risk. Let the developers prove they have the financial where-with-all. If they don’t (and it looks like they don’t) the problem goes away. I am just saying that it is fair to allow the local entities to make these decisions. If they don’t protect themselves than they will lose. Protect can’t “protect” the town. Just let it play out.

        • Paul says:

          Also, it seems likely that this group will sell the development once the permits are cleanly in place and the land is deeded to them. Whoever can front the money to buy that is obviously going to be in much better financial shape. It doesn’t really matter what the lead guys history is or what his balance sheet looks like. Nor does it matter what this other guys tax issues are. Those are distractions.

  9. TLHometown says:

    Paul, Most people in Tupper Lake would like to see the ski area rebuilt and reopened, after all that is what the developers have been promising us for nearly 10 yrs.
    I’ve recently read in several articles that the ACR is planning on starting to sell and develop Great Camp lots shortly after the lawsuit is settled, as early as next spring. But as far as I can tell they haven’t even purchased the property they plan to sell and develop. They do however own the ski area and have a permit, so why not show the locals and future prospective buyers some good faith and start making improvements. In these same articles the developers seem certain the lawsuit will fail, so why not get started on the ski area now?

    The biggest problem most locals have is with the proposed financing of the development, specifically the proposed PILOT program. The town can certainly not afford to give up all the tax revenue to help pay for the infrastructure of the project(to the sole benefit of the developer). The customers buying into this project should be well enough off to be able to pay their full shot of taxes and the developers(if they really are) should be financially viable enough to fund their endeavor, from their own pockets.

    • Paul says:

      Like I said let the project go forward and let the town and county put restrictions on the (non existent PILOT) that protects their interests. Since they have not yet purchased the property what is all the fuss? If they don’t have that money there is the answer.

      • TLPT says:

        Paul, The problem with letting the Town and County put restrictions on the PILOT to protect their interests is the very lack of restrictions that worries all the local taxpayers. Local and county officials seem to have bought into the developers proposal hook, line and sinker.
        Anyone with any modicum of financial sense who has studied the “proposed” PILOT knows that it is certain to raise taxes for all local taxpayers. In simple terms their proposed PILOT does not guarantee the Town, County or School will see any “Payment” at all. If you understand that then you can see why the local taxpayers need their elected officials to do a better job negotiating any PILOT.

        • Paul says:

          ” If you understand that then you can see why the local taxpayers need their elected officials to do a better job negotiating any PILOT.” I do understand that. Talk to the elected officials. Work it out, or elect them out if you don’t like the outcome. Like I said it should not be the states job (they have done their work) or an environmental group or 1 or 2 disgruntled neighbors to protect the town of Tupper Lake from its decisions.

  10. Doug says:

    I basically learned to ski at Big Tupper 40 years ago. I now ski many days a year at Whiteface, but my family and I enjoyed returning to Big Tupper for the two years it was re-opened and we will certainly put in some days there this year, good snow permitting. The people of Tupper Lake that volunteered at the ski area put their money, time and talent out there in support of what they hope will be better days ahead for the mountain and their community.
    From reading this article and the comments here it seems to me that both sides of the ACR debate are using Big Tupper as a pawn. It seems to me that most of the volunteers just want a better life for the people in their community. We all need to find a way to make that happen.

  11. Mike S. says:

    Perhaps there would be some money to put into the ski area if the lawsuit was not burning the cash? If the APA approved, why the lawsuit? Oh ya, we only like the APA when it agrees with us. Moving on to next Us vs. Them article.

    • Jeff says:

      Mike, it’s the developer’s lack of commitment – not the lawsuit – that is preventing investment in the ski area. Long before the lawsuit, ACR stated that investment in the ski area would only occur several years into the development plan, and contingent upon successful sales of great lot parcels. There never has been a definitive plan, timetable or credible funding source for ski area improvements.

      • Mark says:

        Jeff- did you ever attempt to speak to the lead developer on the ground here in Tupper Lake? Obviously not since your comments are mere conjecture meant as pablum to be fed to the naysayers who cling to this one sided “almanac”. Before you pat yourself on the back for advancing your cause, you should ask yourself, “Did I really investigate my claims or did I just regurgitate the false narrative of others?” What do you really know about the developer’s commitment? Local leaders believe in him and the project. We will determine our fate, not radical environmentalists who see themselves as the savior of lessor mortals. Whether you consider Tupper Lake Ski Center below your standards concerns us not.

        • Jeff says:

          Wow Mark, I guess you really put me in my place for questioning ARISE’s and ACR’s own statements. Exactly which of my statements do you consider to be “mere conjecture?” You’ve obviously bought into the ACR pipe dream hook, line and sinker, but maybe you can articulate a credible argument that the Big Tupper ski area is anything more than a carrot dangled by the developers. Show me… the developers sure haven’t.

          • Paul says:

            Why would ARISE open the ski area this winter if they are doing some sort of bidding for the developer? Shouldn’t they keep it closed till these folks drop their lawsuit? (a little like blocking the entrance to the Lincoln Memorial in DC during a government shut down)

            Seems to me that if the ski area is a pawn as you say why don’t they keep it shut down? That seems to defy your logic here.

          • Mark says:

            Well Jeff it’s clear that you know very little about Tupper Lake or the ACR. It’s clear to those of us who live and work here that the ski center won’t be successful without the project and trying to run it independently just doesn’t work. It’s never been dangled like a carrot. ARISE supports the ACR because we desperately need some economic development and we have no “Plan B” to fall back on. If you were to apply some intellectual honesty in your commentary you might have taken the time to interview the mayor, town supervisor, or school superintendent. It seemed to frighten you when I suggested that you actually speak to the developer on the ground. He is ready to put local contractors to work as soon as this lawsuit is over. What do you have to offer except for sideline snipping? You have your opinion but don’t be surprised when someone who lives in the middle of the debate doesn’t throw the BS flag

  12. Adk Guy says:

    What’s preventing investment is a lack of money and a lack of market. The developer has no money and no hope of producing a viable development. The only real danger here is the PILOT. If you don’t give the developer money to cut up the parcel then there is really no danger anything will happen.

  13. Dale Jeffers says:

    I agree with ADKBuddy, run the outsiders like Foxman out of town and back to Sunrise. By the way ADKBuddy, your legal analysis of the “frivolous” lawsuit was nothing short of persuasive.

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