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New report probes ORDA's spending and future

The hockey arena in Lake Placid, site of the 1980 Miracle on Ice.
Ian Pickus
The hockey arena in Lake Placid, site of the 1980 Miracle on Ice.

The legacy of the 1980 Winter Olympics looms large in New York’s collective memory. But even after millions of dollars in state subsidies and investments, the future of the Lake Placid region is an open question.

A new investigation into the Olympic Regional Development Authority raises questions about return on investment, management, and more.

The new piece is called “New York State’s risky investment in Lake Placid’s Olympic Dream,” co-authored by upstate resident and NPR reporter Brian Mann, who joins us now.

To begin, what is ORDA exactly and what is it supposed to do?

Yeah, so after the 1980 Olympics, all these sports venues were there in Lake Placid, some of them had been around since the 1930s. And people realized that, you know, without some kind of organization, these sports venues would sort of be left isolated, and there wasn't anyone to care for them or to kind of sponsor them. And so, the state created this authority and ever since that's what ORDA has done. They manage the bobsled run and the ski jumps. Over the years, that mission has expanded, they run three ski mountains at Whiteface, at Gore in Johnsburg, and also Belleayre now down in the Catskills. So, it's a big organization and about 1,300 employees at their peak seasonal employment and a big part of the upstate economy.

What kind of money are we actually talking about that has gone into this authority?

Well, this is really the huge sea change that prompted us to dig into this and investigate. ORDA used to receive sort of in the $10 million to $20 million range in a bad year. And those were often described as problems, they would need that money as sort of sort of special help or subsidies or bailouts. But then about seven years ago, ORDA convinced officials with the Cuomo administration, and later the Hochul administration to really shift the narrative. And now the authority receives between $110 and $150 million a year, much of it going to the Lake Placid area, you know, this village with about 2,300 year-round residents getting hundreds of millions of dollars. We found that the total taxpayer expenditure on ORDA will soon top $1 billion dollars.

At one point New York State's comptroller, who looks at spending by state agencies and authorities, issued a very critical report about ORDA's management. What did they find?

Yeah, that happened right before this surge of spending began. And they pointed to really messy accounting. They found that there was really poor forward planning often, ORDA entered into deals that were not really beneficial for the state authority, which meant that they were losing lots and lots of money. And what we found in our investigation is that it's really unclear that a lot of those problems have been solved, it was very difficult to get really clear accounting, often, or to requests 10s of millions of dollars in state money without actually having a list of exactly what that money will be spent on. We found a big sort of landmark moment that last winter, ORDA hosted the biggest winter sports event in a generation, the World University Games, and we found we report for the first time that ORDA actually received no revenue from that entire event. This is an event that state officials say cost half a billion dollars to sponsor. But when the final reckoning and accounting was done, ORDA received almost nothing and so again, this really pointed back to that comptroller's report that raised questions about those internal decisions.

Let's talk more about those World University Games. I think it's fair to say it remains an open question as to why, essentially, the facilities were volunteered for these World University Games without collecting revenue on ORDA's part, right?

So, this is a really interesting part of ORDA's mission and their narrative about who they are. They basically say, 'look, we're not a business. We're here to facilitate economic development. We work with a lot of community and regional partners.' And so often these lines do get really blurry. And what ended up happening here is that they handed off the ability to sell tickets to these events, again, the biggest winter sports event that the north country had seen in a really long time and the money all went to other nonprofit groups that were involved in various ways. State officials defend that decision, although they acknowledged that they would rethink it if they went back and did this all again. It's also just really problematic why this event after such a huge investment, wound up attracting really disappointing crowds, we found that only about $700,000 worth of actual tickets were sold. 700,000 may sound like a lot of money, but for an event that cost half a billion dollars to prepare for and to build momentum for to then turn around and sell only $700,000 worth of tickets. A lot of the people we spoke to said that’s a really problematic moment for this kind of new, bigger dollar ORDA. You know, this was not the coming out party they hoped for.

What did locals and local businesses have to say about the impact, if there was one, of those games?

People are really sort of divided about this. And what they will say is, they really believe that ORDA's mission is essential to the economy in these mountain villages. They believe that this money needs to come to venues like Whiteface and Gore and Belleayre. But then when it comes to an event like this, there was a lot of disappointment. People did not see cash registers ringing, they did not see hotel rooms filled with visitors from around the world. In fact, often the streets were kind of empty and shops were empty. And people raised real questions about that. Although I will say one of the things that we found in our investigation that was really problematic is that there does not seem to be any mechanism for reviewing things like this. Very quickly, all the state officials and others involved in this event, declared it a victory, declared it a big win, and moved on and said, 'Yep, that worked. So here we go on to the next thing.' When in fact, what we found is that there were really significant questions, people speaking on backgrounds, even sometimes speaking publicly, including some ORDA officials said, 'Yeah, you know, we should have rethought some of that.' But there doesn't seem to be much mechanism for there to be real accounting and real accountability, when things don't work right. And, and the stakes are just much higher now. Back when this was an organization costing taxpayers $10 million a year maybe that lack of planning wouldn't have been such a big deal. But now when it's costing taxpayers in some years, $150 million a year, we wanted to ask questions about that.

Now, you don't have to look far to find past Olympic venues and cities where the facilities were immediately abandoned and never repurposed. I think the Olympics for a lot of places are definitely an economic loser in the long run. Is there an argument to be made that Lake Placid has all this Olympic stuff still in action four decades later, and that's better than the alternative?

That is 100% the argument that ORDA and many locals and many people who love the Olympic spirit in the Adirondacks and the north country say is that, without ORDA, we would look like a lot of especially winter Olympic venues where you do see things have just fallen into ruin and so that's very real. And you know, I've been a reporter up here for many years covering local Olympic athletes, people who go all over the world competing, representing New York, it's a big part of the identity. So yeah, that's a part of the mission. It's part of what ORDA was created to do. I think the questions that we raise here is what happens when the investment in sustaining that spirit, and that vision suddenly shifts tenfold. And when the planning suggests that that new level of taxpayer support may essentially be permanent, we could find no plan for this new ORDA to someday kind of stand more on its own two feet. Instead, what happened just in May, just last month, is the ORDA board voted to increase its annual spending request to Albany by another $20 million. And so that's really the question that we wanted to raise, what is the price of that Olympic dream? A lot of other places around the world say it's just too costly. And New York State may decide that this is exactly how much money needs to be spent forever. But we just thought it was important to kind of kick the tires on that.

Well, there have been whispers and rumors and local efforts over the years to maybe bring the Winter Olympics back to the area or at least maybe in conjunction with Montreal, say. Is there a chance we could see these facilities reused in a future Olympics?

I think what certain now is that ORDA has brought them back into the highest-level caliber necessary for top tier winter sports events from around the world. And so, we will see World Cup games, those kinds of events. Having just covered a Winter Olympics in Beijing, the scale of that is on a level that is really very different now then it's easy to imagine Lake Placid being a part of obviously, anything is possible, especially with Montreal possibly being in the picture. But nobody that I talked to in the industry really sees this as being realistic anytime soon. It's certainly not on the horizon in terms of any active planning and these things take years and decades to sort of plot out. So, I would say every once in a while, I hear people talking about that in a kind of, wouldn't it be wonderful, magical future kind of way? Realistically, it's a very, very long shot.

Let me just zoom out a little bit. I mean, you know the region very well. In the Adirondacks housing is at a premium and population is down. If being a winter sports destination at the level it aspires to might be off the table, or at least in terms of taxpayer support for that, what does the future look like there?

You know, I think it's a really pivotal moment for Lake Placid and for other mountain villages in the Adirondacks and in the Catskills. For one reason, there's climate change, you know, this billion-dollar bet is coming at a time when winters are getting shorter here. And we've already seen some really tough years for ORDA when it rained more than snowed and so that's one thing that I think is really going to be a big part of the question going forward. How do businesses and locals adapt? And how will this Olympic authority adapt? I do also think that there are big questions about what ORDA is doing, and what benefits it's bringing to the Lake Placid region, Lake Placid is a village that's lost 10% of its population over the last decade. The school district is shrinking. There's a crisis level housing shortage there. These are not problems that anyone can hang on ORDA. But it does raise questions about the larger picture of planning, we could find no evidence that anybody had said, 'What will happen if we spent a billion dollars in upstate New York on winter sports venues or half a billion dollars in the Lake Placid area?' No one who said 'How will this fit into livability, cost of living and all of those things?' And so, people are wrestling up here with what will these villages look like going forward. How this all fits together I think, that's one of the things that we wanted this article to spark is a conversation about if we're going to keep spending $110 million a year on winter sports and on these tourism venues, how does that serve? How does that fit? I should say, ORDA make the argument that there's a big economic multiplier jobs, tourism, spending, lots of other things that happen that they point to that they say are very, very positive. And I think there's some reality to that. There are also some very big challenges.

A lifelong resident of the Capital Region, Ian joined WAMC in late 2008 and became news director in 2013. He began working on Morning Edition and has produced The Capitol Connection, Congressional Corner, and several other WAMC programs. Ian can also be heard as the host of the WAMC News Podcast and on The Roundtable and various newscasts. Ian holds a BA in English and journalism and an MA in English, both from the University at Albany, where he has taught journalism since 2013.
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