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State of the art snow making techniques help ORDA maintain venues even in warmer weather. Photo: ORDA
State of the art snow making techniques help ORDA maintain venues even in warmer weather. Photo: ORDA

Profile: Ted Blazer's ORDA anchors NY winter tourism

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There's snow on the ground in the Adirondacks. The winter tourism industry in the region is hoping to bounce back this season after last year's disastrously warm weather.

But winter tourism in the region faces some big challenges going forward, including questions about climate change and competition from big venues and destinations in New Hampshire and Vermont.

Ted Blazer is head of the state-run Olympic Regional Development Authority, which is headquartered in Lake Placid. Much of the future of winter tourism in the region depends on him.

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Reported by

Brian Mann
Adirondack Bureau Chief

When Governor Andrew Cuomo traveled to the Adirondacks in September, he laid out a vision for North Country tourism: "You live in New York state, there is no reason you need to leave New York state to vacation," Cuomo argued, pointing to venues and destinations upstate.

That’s an ambitious goal, rewiring the vacation habits of millions of downstaters. If anything like that reality is possible, a lot of the burden will fall on one man: Ted Blazer.

"We've got plenty of things going on in New York and maybe it's a good choice to go on up and take a left [to Upstate New York], instead of going on up and taking a right [to New England]."

What we're trying to do is get ourselves in a position where we can react to changes in temperatures.
Blazer has been head of the Olympic Regional Development Authority since 1995. 

We meet on an early winter day in his office in Lake Placid, in the newly revamped Olympic center – with its big new conference center.

ORDA runs sports and tourism venues from Johnsburg to Lake Placid to Wilmington and this year the state-run authority took over operation of Belleayre, the state’s ski center in the Catskills.

"We've already done some refinements to the lodges, we've added some new snow grooming equipment, we've got energy efficient snowmaking guns that are going to be installed."

The good news for ORDA is that the state appears committed to building its franchise and operations – not just with the expansion to Belleayre. Last year, Albany gave the authority roughly $5 million in regular subsidies, along with an additional $4 million for upgrading infrastructure.

ORDA CEO Ted Blazer. Photo: Chris Morris
ORDA CEO Ted Blazer. Photo: Chris Morris
The tough news is that the Authority faces some big questions going forward – the biggest being the viability of winter itself.

"You can't ignore things that happen," Blazer says. "I'm sure there are cycles I can't explain but what we're trying to do is get ourselves in a position where we can react to changes in temperatures. And when we do things, do things more efficiently, more effectively, and quicker."

This question of climate change is clearly a tough one for Blazer. He acknowledges repeatedly that some kind of change appears to be underway.

He’s bullish on the ability of ORDA and other ski centers to adapt, for example by using new snowmaking equipment.

But last year’s warm winter cost his operation a lot of money – with revenue at Gore Mountain and Whiteface down together by roughly $2.5 million. Whiteface alone saw 20 percent fewer visitors.

Blazer says his organization has bounced back well. But the tough winter clearly hurt a lot of for-profit winter tourism venues, especially those that can’t manufacture snow.

"You know, the snowmobile industry, that's a hard one, because they're so dependent on natural snowfall and temperatures to keep snow on the ground. That was a tough year last year and there have been other tough years."

ORDA itself faces some other big challenges as well, including the ever-present threat of budget cuts from Albany. 

In 2009, when Democrats controlled the state Senate, there was serious talk of zeroing out funding for the authority. 

With the state now facing huge rebuilding costs from Hurricane Sandy, there’s more discussion of austerity. But Blazer says he thinks an argument can be made that the taxpayer investment in ORDA is worth it.

"For every dollar that we get there's a huge economic impact from it," he says, arguing that ORDA generates roughly $347 million in tourism activity every year.

In order to capture more of those downstate tourism dollars, ORDA also faces the hurdle of helping to market upstate New York – including the Adirondacks and Catskills — as a destination that has some of the cachet of our neighbors to the east. 

"A lot of it is how you feel about the advertisements you see, and what the mystique of what a winter vacation or winter travel is all about," Blazer says.

He acknowledges that New England has "an aura" that is tough to compete with, but he says New York can do a better job of telling people that "it's as cool to go to New York."

Blazer hopes that this winter will give the North Country the chance to tell that story with better snow and cold-weather conditions. 

Whiteface Mountain has already logged two weekends of good skiing – the earliest opening since 2003.

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