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Last week's ACR hearing was held in the Tupper Lake train depot (Photo:  Brian Mann)
Last week's ACR hearing was held in the Tupper Lake train depot (Photo: Brian Mann)

Experts debate viability, business plan of proposed Big Tupper resort

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In Tupper Lake, the latest round of hearings into the proposed Adirondack Club and Resort has been focusing on economic questions about the project. Developers Michael Foxman and Tom Lawson hope to build hundreds of condos and mansions, along with a new ski area, marina, equestrian center and other amenities. The price tag for the project is roughly $500 million.

Some business leaders in the village say they're satisfied that the company has laid out a realistic plan for building the expansive resort. But some resort experts, state officials, and local government leaders in Tupper Lake say they still have questions about how the project will be financed and how enough buyers will be found for the new homes. Brian Mann has our story.

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David Norden is a nationally respected ski resort developer based in Stowe, Vermont who has worked on projects all over the world. He was hired by an environmental group called Protect the Adirondacks to analyze development plans and sales projections produced by the backers of the Adirondack Club and Resort, which would be built in large part around the Lake Tupper ski hill.

In two days of testimony last week, Norden laid out a harsh portrait of the projects business plan, arguing that the proposed vacation homes are too far from major urban markets and too highly priced to be competitive.

"I believe that competitive price means probably below the competition. Tupper Lake is priced above the competition so it does not appear that the pricing is competitive."

Norden offered a detailed analysis based on actual sales that other ski resorts in the Northeast. He said predictions by the developer that they would sell as much as $38 million worth of real estate every year were overblown.Asked what a realistic number might be, Norden answered, "that's below $5 million."

In his testimony, Norden described a vacation home market that's still crippled by the national recession but the attorney representing the developers, Tom Ulasewicz, argued that Norden's analysis was flawed because it focused too heavily on the idea that the new resort would be a ski area. "Are you aware, Mr. Norden, that the Adirondack Club and Resort project proposal is not for an Adirondack ski resort but rather an Adirondack resort with a ski area?"

"The reason I spent a lot of time focusing on the ski resort aspect is because in many of the documents, the applicant called the ski area the centerpiece of the project. So I assumed that centerpiece meant the primary focus."

The developers called their own expert witness last week. Scotty Brandi owns a home in Tupper Lake and is president of Ski Areas of New York, an industry trade group. "I mean I support the project. I see the benefits. As a ski industry professional, I see the project being a sustainable year-round resort."

But during the hearing, Administrative Law Judge Daniel O'Connell struck much of Brandi's testimony from the official record because the developers had failed to disclose many of the financial reports and other data that Brandy referenced.

Adirondack Park Agency Attorney Paul Van Cott blasted the resorts backers for withholding information about the project. "This is conduct that is inexcusable and that whatever it means in terms of delay of this proceeding, it is all on the applicant's shoulders because this information should have been provided at the appropriate point and time."

The resorts attorney Tom Ulasewicz said the company had made a good faith effort to provide all the relevant information. "Anything that is relevant to the testimony, and the document was shared between myself and an expert witness, is attached as an exhibit to the testimony."

This inquiry into the proposed resorts economic viability sparked various responses from member of the Tupper Lake community.

"It's a slight eye-opener. It's different than what was proposed to us. We were led to believe one thing and now are hearing something else," said village Mayor Mickey Desmarais, who said it was good that the APA, local government leaders and environmental groups continue to push the developers for better information about the project and it's financing. "There comes to a point when you stop asking questions, but only after the questions have been answered. The truth has to be known. And some people have a problem, you know, digesting the truth."

Former Lake Tupper Chamber of Commerce president Don Dew said they were convinced that the project is viable and should go forward. "I personally know four people that will make a deposit on a Great Camp lot tomorrow. So there's some thought that they aren't going to sell, I can put that to bed in that sense that I know tomorrow there’s four people at the Great camp lots who would sell the minute they become available."

At times this financial inquiry was bitter and contentious. Protect the Adirondacks tried to open an inquiry into the fact that the developers Michael Fox and Tom Lawson have fallen behind on their property taxes, with Lawson also facing federal tax difficulties. Protect attorney John Caffry said, "I was aware of Mr. Lawson's tax issues. If you can't pay your taxes how are you going to be a credible developer?

The judge disallowed those questions and Jim LaValley, head of a group called ARISE that’s backing the resort, said they were inappropriate: "There was no room for that in this hearing. I think that the attorney was really stepping into the realm of defamation of character."

It's unclear just how all of this financial data will affect the park agency's decision about granting a permit for the resort. But it’s clear that significant questions remain about the projects sources of financing, the exact plan for construction of homes and other amenities, and strategies for marketing hundreds of high-end vacation properties at a time when the real estate market is still sputtering.

 

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