Strengths and weaknesses of Olympic authority
A healthy kind of battle is brewing between the North Elba Town Council and the New York state Olympic Regional Development Authority.
North Elba owns the Olympic Center downtown and pays ORDA $750,000 a year for venue management, so local property taxpayers have a lot of skin in the game – not as much as the state of New York, which gives ORDA millions each year, but still substantial. The town gets representation for that taxation, too; its council gets to appoint three of the ORDA board’s 12 members. The governor picks the other nine.
Those three, at present, are Serge Lussi, Ed Weibrecht and Jerry Strack, but now that Mr. Weibrecht and Mr. Lussi’s terms are up, the town council wants two new reps. Why replace two local businessmen who have each been on the ORDA board for about 15 years? Town councilors haven’t been very clear, but they’re ready for some fresh faces, as is their prerogative.
The town board chose Jim McKenna, longtime head of the Regional Office of Sustainable Tourism (also known as the Lake Placid Convention and Visitors Bureau), and Andy Lack, chairman of Bloomberg Media Group – a heavyweight in the U.S. media business who happens to have a house in Lake Placid. However, a new state ethics commission came out against Mr. McKenna, claiming he has a conflict of interest – that due to his day job, he would have to recuse himself from too many ORDA decisions. Faced with that, he withdrew his name.
The town council wasn’t happy about that. Some members were ready to go to the wall with ORDA, which they suspected of rigging the game against Mr. McKenna.
We have to say, we can’t imagine many situations in which Mr. McKenna might have his own material gain or loss at stake in an ORDA decision. We can also see potential benefits of him being on the board since he is a professional at marketing the area to tourists, and ROOST (including its previous incarnations) and ORDA haven’t always cooperated on marketing and promotion. To most local people, teamwork between these agencies makes sense.
It’s much easier to see potential conflicts of interest with Mr. Lussi and Mr. Weibrecht being on the ORDA board. We’re not questioning their personal integrity at all, but both own hotels that gain major income from people coming to ORDA venues. Granted, that gives them down-to-earth insight into ORDA’s impact on the local economy, but there are plenty of decisions ORDA can face which might tempt them to let their votes follow their revenue.
With Mr. McKenna off the table, the town council isn’t done asserting itself. On Tuesday it appointed Joe Lamb, a Lake Placid native who’s president of his family’s lumber company. He’s also a 1972 Olympian whose efforts had a big impact on building up the sport of nordic combined in the United States. The town council members clearly want something from ORDA that they don’t feel their longtime reps are delivering. We’re curious what that is.
Viewed from a proverbial 30,000-foot altitude, ORDA has done an excellent job of keeping Lake Placid vibrant and globally important as a winter sports destination, and also as a tourism hotspot in summer and winter. ORDA’s original mission was to maintain the Olympic venues after the 1980 Games, and 34 years later, ours are much better than those of all but a few other Winter Olympic host cities. Only those from the last 12 years can host World Cup and World Championship events in a wide variety of sports, like we can. Many of our venues – Whiteface Mountain Ski Center and the sliding track, for instance – have seen major modernization, and training venues have been added to keep this one of the nation’s few hubs for Winter Olympic athletes.
The authority is at least partly responsible for many of the Olympic Region’s other strengths. Few other resort towns drive their regional economy the way Lake Placid does. Few have such a strong winter sports culture. Almost none has the amount of Olympic spirit that’s found in our local populace. Plus, because of ORDA’s expertise at running ski areas, Gov. Andrew Cuomo recently chose it to take over Belleayre Ski Center in the Catskills, 220 miles away.
At ground level, however, many local people see ORDA as deeply inadequate. Instead of seeing how well it has conserved our Olympic venues compared to those of Squaw Valley or Albertville, they see how much more it could do, especially for the amount of their tax money it takes in. They’ll tell you how many concerts the Olympic Center used to host; how the speedskating oval could, with some investment and energetic chutzpah, host serious outdoor competition, as is done in parts of Europe; how the ski jumps are slipping into obsolescence; how Mount Van Hoevenberg’s biathlon course became obsolete a while ago; how sports bodies like U.S. Biathlon and the U.S. women’s hockey left town but could be lured back; and how the authority is inefficient and doesn’t get enough return on public investment.
Like anything or anyone, ORDA has strengths and weaknesses. It certainly plays it safer than it could, but that’s not always bad. And ORDA is by no means stoic or lazy. It brought the ECAC hockey tournament back to town, it added summer biking and disc golf at Whiteface, it’s made many improvements at Gore, and it’s added energy-efficient snowmaking gear to reduce expenses and extend the ski season.
This is an important debate for the Lake Placid-North Elba community to have. We’re sure all parties involved want to make the venues and Lake Placid the best they can be, but still, the town council is right to stick up for its people and to hold ORDA accountable for local taxpayers’ substantial investment.