When I go to see Mike Pratt at the Olympic Regional Development Authority’s glossy new state-funded headquarters in Lake Placid, the first thing he does is spread out photographs of Olympic sports venues and stadiums in Beijing, Berlin and Sarajevo that lie abandoned and in ruins. His message is plain: This almost happened here.
Pratt’s an unimposing guy in his early 60s, a soft-spoken Lake Placid native, a veteran ski-mountain manager who looks a little out of place in the corporate boardroom where we meet. When he took over as CEO of the Olympic Regional Development Authority (ORDA) six years ago, one newspaper described him as “some random guy in a red baseball cap.”
The description sort of fits. It’s still hard to see Pratt as a major power player in Albany and one of the most important figures shaping the Adirondack Park’s economic future. But by all accounts, he’s the guy who convinced New York State to plow huge amounts of taxpayer money into a financially-troubled, poorly managed sports authority that had been bleeding cash for decades.
“The last six years, the total capital investment in the Olympic Authority was $552 million,” Pratt told me proudly. “These are unprecedented investments in our facilities, no question about it. But the return on investment is immediate.”
Half a billion dollars is a hell of a lot of money. The vast majority of it, more than $400 million, went to projects in the Lake Placid region, home to some 20,000 year-round residents—and it turns out, that breathtaking sum is only part of the story.
Adirondack Life found New York State has actually pumped far more taxpayer dollars into ORDA since Pratt took the helm than previously reported, including a separate infusion of subsidies needed to cover the Olympic Authority’s annual operating losses. Total public spending during Pratt’s six-year tenure now tops $620 million.
New York also agreed to fund an additional $46.5 million in grants to bankroll last winter’s World University Games, a kind of mini-Olympics held in Lake Placid in January, and spent another $6.5 million helping refurbish Lake Placid’s Main Street.
Taken together that’s more money than New York spent hosting the 1980 Winter Olympics. It’s also more money than the state committed, amid growing controversy, to help build a new NFL stadium in Buffalo, a city with a population more than 10 times that of the Lake Placid region.
There’s also no sign ORDA’s hunger for taxpayer cash will shrink anytime soon. In fact, it appears to be growing. The Olympic Authority is already slated to receive operating subsidies and capital investments next year that total another $119 million.
To put that amount in context, the entire Jay Peak Resort in Vermont sold last year for $76 million. Which means New York State’s spending on the Olympic Authority in 2024 would be enough to buy an entire new ski mountain, with tens of millions of dollars left over.
It now appears certain the total price tag for Pratt’s vision of a new, revitalized ORDA will top $1 billion. He said that’s exactly what the organization needed to finally fulfill its mission as keeper of New York’s Olympic flame.
“I love telling this story,” Pratt said. “We do something special here. We still host year-round, high-level training and competitions. We put spectators and tourists right next to elite athletes.”
There’s no doubt under Pratt’s leadership that ORDA has seen remarkable change. Outdated attractions have been restored, often in lavish fashion. Lake Placid resort owner and ORDA board member Arthur Lussi said the state’s investment “transformed 40-year-old venues and brought them back to life in a glitter they’ve never seen.”
The glossy new corporate headquarters is a tiny piece of the rags-to-riches makeover. There are now heated sidewalks outside the Olympic Center in Lake Placid, new ski lodges, new temperature-controlled gondolas, new fleets of snow groomers and an arsenal of new state-of-the-art snow guns.
Perhaps most significantly, according to ORDA officials, athletic venues once again meet the exacting standards required for international competition. That made it possible for Lake Placid to host the World University Games, the largest sporting event in the village in a generation. In February, the Olympic Authority also held the first World Cup ski-jumping event in North America since 2009.
There’s one more big change. By the Olympic Authority’s reckoning, crowds are growing fast. “That’s the curve I want you to see,” Pratt said, pointing to revenues that nearly doubled during his time at the helm, from $32 million to roughly $60 million. That’s significant for a state entity that was teetering on the edge of ruin as recently as 2016, mired in debt, unable to pay its bills or even make payroll.
But despite these positive trends, our reporting found troubling questions about ORDA and its future. The Authority’s hunger for annual taxpayer subsidies continues to balloon. It’s also not yet clear whether the mismanagement and budget woes that nearly destroyed ORDA before Pratt took over have been fixed or have merely been papered over by the unprecedented amounts of cash flowing from Albany.
Another daunting challenge is climate change. New York State is betting that winter sports and tourism will be viable industries long-term. But the Adirondack Park’s winter season is already eroding. A 2021 study, Climate change and the future of the Olympic Winter Games, found Lake Placid—home to hundreds of millions of dollars’ worth of shiny new winter attractions—may no longer be cold enough by the end of this century to host another Winter Olympics.
“We were concerned about ORDA not being able to survive.”
To understand how pivotal and potentially perilous this moment is for ORDA, it’s important to understand how the organization got here. It’s also necessary to separate the exciting, fun and visionary aspects of what the Olympic Authority promises from the harsh economic realities that experts say make this such a risky wager.
The idea of Lake Placid as one of the world’s major winter sport meccas is compelling. The village hosted two Winter Olympics, in 1932 and 1980. The Miracle on Ice, when the US hockey team defeated Russia, is enshrined in America’s national mythology. That spirit still burns bright in nearby Adirondack towns that regularly produce world-class skiers and sledders.
None of that would be possible without ORDA.
But six years ago, the Olympic Authority came very close to unraveling. The organization needed regular bailouts from Albany. Venues were outdated and shabby. Annual losses were growing and regularly topped $19 million a year.
“The first thing is we were antiquated,” Pratt said, recalling the mood of that time. “We hadn’t invested in any summer operations and we had bad concession contracts at some of our profit centers.”
It’s hard to overstate how grim things were. ORDA often had to use lines of credit or borrow money from other agencies just to make payroll for the 1,300 workers at its ski mountains and Olympic venues. An audit by the state comptroller’s office released in 2014 blasted the organization for years of poor planning and mismanagement.
“Considering ORDA’s continued struggles in the midst of rising costs and declining state appropriations,” the audit concluded, “it is imperative that it employ cost saving and sound planning strategies moving forward.”
The stakes were incredibly high. ORDA is one of the Adirondack Park’s biggest employers. In addition to operating Olympic sport venues and Whiteface Mountain, the Authority was now managing a massive new $17 million state-funded convention center in downtown Lake Placid. It had also expanded to run the Gore Mountain Ski Center, in North Creek, and Belleayre Mountain, in the Catskills.
Some locals feared the Olympic Authority’s troubles would cause New York State to back away from the whole enterprise. “We were concerned about ORDA not being able to survive,” recalled Jim McKenna, head of the Regional Office of Sustainable Tourism (ROOST), based in Lake Placid. “If the state commitment goes down, how do we support these venues in the future?”
Things got even worse in 2016, the year before Pratt took over. With climate change looming, the East Coast ski season was a near-total washout. Rain fell week after week. Tourists stayed home and revenue plummeted again. ORDA’s losses grew to more than $25 million, a perilous sign of things to come.
“The climate is affecting things,” McKenna told me somberly in an interview at the time. “We’ll see more winters like this one in our future.”
ORDA was on the brink. To keep the organization afloat, the Cuomo administration quietly raided $4.9 million from the coffers of the MTA, the state-run transportation authority in New York City that operates subways and buses. State officials later acknowledged the money was desperately needed to “help stabilize ORDA’s finances.”
When the controversial maneuver was finally made public a year later, it drew harsh new attention to ORDA’s budget woes and angered downstate lawmakers who couldn’t understand why funding for subway trains was being diverted to ski mountains.
Adding insult to injury, 2016 was also the year USA Luge, the last Olympic sports team headquartered in Lake Placid, announced it was likely to leave. “The entire infrastructure here is beginning to decay,” USA Luge’s then-president Jim Leahy told me that winter. “If the infrastructure is not improved across the board, Lake Placid will become a footnote in history.”
It seemed ORDA’s Olympic dream had hit a dead end.
Imagining a Different ORDA
In many parts of the world, this is how the story ends. Remember those photographs Pratt showed me of ruined sports venues? That’s what happens to the majority of competition sites built for Winter Olympic Games. The reason is simple: They’re hugely expensive to maintain and have limited audience appeal. That’s especially true in the US, where winter sports like Nordic combined, biathlon and sled racing never really caught on.
“It becomes really problematic to make an economic argument in favor of [maintaining these venues],” said Andrew Zimbalist, an expert on public funding for sports venues, including Olympic projects, at Smith College. “It’s difficult to understand even in the best of circumstances how these investments would pay off over time.”
The year Mike Pratt took over as ORDA’s CEO it seemed the organization’s best strategy might be to get leaner, cut costs, and maybe even back away from high-risk sports venues that were unlikely to generate significant revenue. At the March 2017 meeting when Pratt was introduced as the Authority’s new leader, then-board president J. Patrick Barrett offered a grim warning.
“I don’t want to sound negative on this, but we may get a new administration [in Albany] that says, ‘Look, I’m not going to spend that kind of money up there,’” Barrett said. “We’ve got to prepare [with] a little more conservative planning. We’ve got to prepare for those rainy days.”
That’s not what happened. Instead of figuring out how ORDA might operate within its means, Pratt—the unassuming guy in the ball cap—began to quietly flip the narrative. Working behind the scenes, he mobilized a small group of influential ORDA board members, including former state senator Betty Little and retired media executive Andrew Lack, a Lake Placid resident, who had close ties to then-Governor Andrew Cuomo.
Their argument was simple if brazen: The solution for the Olympic Authority’s woes wasn’t austerity. The solution was a lot more taxpayer cash.
“I said there’s no way we can do this, the amount of money we would have to spend,” recalled Lussi, the Lake Placid resort owner who sits on ORDA’s board. “I was fairly nervous and skeptical New York would allocate enough money.”
The skepticism was understandable. The wish list ORDA and its allies rolled out was ambitious, some might say extravagant. It included new ski lodges, new fleets of snow groomers, a rebuild of the castle on top of Whiteface Mountain, a completely reinvented Olympic museum, a huge new investment in solar power arrays, and on and on.
Pratt and other ORDA officials often compare their sprawling operations to small cities, each venue with its own wastewater and plumbing systems, power substations, highway departments, and building complexes. Now the Authority wanted much of that infrastructure rebuilt on the state’s dime, with almost no expense spared.
Remarkably, some of the biggest investments—$26 million to refurbish the Lake Placid ski jumps, $92 million for the Mount Van Hoevenberg sports complex—would go to rebuild costly winter sports venues that ranked among the Authority’s biggest money losers.
“If we want to have US athletes in winter sports, then I think we have to make these investments,” ORDA board president Joe Martens told me during a recent interview.
Martens, who once served as commissioner of the Department of Environmental Conservation under Cuomo, helped sell state officials on the idea that New York had been too stingy in its support of ORDA. If the state was going to stay in the winter sport and tourism business, he believed, the bill had finally come due.
“The $550 million investment looks like a lot,” Martens said. “I would argue that the state has deferred investments in the Olympic venues in particular since the 1980 Winter Olympics—and they have slowly gone downhill.”
Similar requests for a big infusion of taxpayer cash for ORDA had been floated and rejected before—including a plan that was shot down in Albany as recently as 2015. This time the Olympic Authority sweetened the proposal by linking it to a splashy new international event—the FISU World University Games, a gathering of college-level athletes that promised to draw visitors and media attention from around the globe.
It worked. Beginning in 2017, the Cuomo administration abruptly set aside years of concerns about ORDA’s troubled history and red ink and began approving every project on the Olympic Authority’s list. In some years, state budget officials approved massive outlays of cash without any itemized list of what ORDA would do with the money.
The shift in tone is dizzying. Years of hand-wringing over bailouts in the $10 million range gave way to public celebration of “investments” 10 times larger. In a statement last January as the World University Games were about to open, Governor Kathy Hochul boasted of the spending. “After more than $550 million in state-supported renovations and investments, New York is ready to welcome athletes from all over the world to our state,” Hochul said.
But if that event was supposed to be a kind of coming-out party—and a proof of concept—for Pratt’s no-expense-spared version of Lake Placid’s Olympic Authority, the 11-day event unfolded very differently. Instead of answering questions and doubts regarding ORDA’s new direction, it wound up heightening them.
“There were loud voices saying, Where is everybody?”
After years of anticipation, lavish spending and fanfare, the World University Games finally dawned in Lake Placid to drizzly weather—and a Main Street shopping district that was nearly empty. “There were loud voices saying, Where is everybody?” said Marc Galvin, a bookstore owner and Lake Placid village trustee who also heads the Lake Placid Business Association.
“There were expectations out there that people thought it was going to be like the 1980 Games where there were droves of people,” he said. “People were expecting cash registers to be ringing day and night, but that just wasn’t the reality. We just didn’t have the spectators and the fans here.”
Some elements of the competition worked perfectly. Despite periods of rain, crews at ORDA’s newly-upgraded sports venues pulled off event after event with near flawless precision. “We had 68 events and we had nothing but compliments about the field of play. The ice and snow were tremendous,” Pratt said proudly.
Crowds grew somewhat as the competition unfolded and some events, including the curling competition held in Saranac Lake, sold out. But event organizers acknowledge selling only about $706,000 worth of tickets—a tiny amount given the event’s half-billion-dollar price tag.
“We were all told how the games were going to have such a positive economic impact to the area, yet it appears to be a complete failure economic-wise,” said Ralph Rimualdo, a local business owner, in an interview that week with the Adirondack Daily Enterprise. “From talking with other owners, I’m being told all our sales are down from last year without the games.”
What went wrong? and what does it say about ORDA’s new direction?
For one thing this event, unlike the Winter Olympics, didn’t boast top-tier athletes with the kind of name recognition that boosts audience appeal. Some critics say it was a mistake to close Lake Placid’s Main Street, making it pedestrian-only during the event, forcing visitors to park remotely and ride buses.
But ORDA officials acknowledge one other massive misstep. In the months leading up to the opening ceremony, organizers failed to complete one of the most important cornerstones of the project: construction of a new apartment complex on the outskirts of Lake Placid that was meant to house hundreds of athletes and coaches.
“Covid hit, building costs went up and the financing didn’t become available, so that’s unfortunate,” said ROOST’s McKenna, who chairs the board of the Adirondack Sports Council, a winter-sport booster organization that served as the central organizing committee for the 2023 World University Games.
As a result, many sports teams competing in the games crowded into the region’s hotel rooms, leaving limited space for the overnight tourists local businesses anticipated. By some accounts, event organizers actually scaled back marketing for the games because hotel beds were scarce.
“Would I have liked to have seen a lot more spectators?” said ORDA president Martens. “Yes. We did not market the games well enough. There were concerns about our capacity so that’s why the brakes were put on in terms of attracting spectators to the games.”
Martens cites other less tangible measures of success for the games, including robust television viewership on ESPN in the US and on a network called Eurosport overseas. “The world was watching and I think that will have long-term benefits,” Martens said.
But there’s one more troubling detail about how the World University Games played out.
After spending massive amounts of money leading up to the event and devoting months of staff time to the competition, ORDA allowed the Adirondack Sports Council to keep all revenue from ticket sales. ORDA charged nothing for use of its facilities or employee time.
In the blistering 2014 audit of ORDA’s management practices, this is exactly the kind of arrangement that drew the state comptroller’s ire. That report scolded the organization for entering into deals that weren’t financially favorable and said in the future that ORDA should “strive to maximize all revenue-generating opportunities.”
Asked why ORDA agreed to a plan where its largest sporting event in a generation would produce no revenue, Pratt couldn’t provide a clear explanation. “I think it was partly being a good neighbor. You know in hindsight there were a lot of things that could have been done differently and more efficiently,” he said.
Growing pains or growing losses?
ORDA officials and boosters say apparent stumbles like this one—and the mounting taxpayer cost of the organization’s transformation—are growing pains and aren’t reason to doubt Pratt’s vision or management.
“I do pause at the extreme cost [of ORDA’s upgrades], but I also believe we’re doing the right thing,” said Lussi. “The numbers of skiers at Whiteface, Gore and Belleayre this winter show it.”
ORDA records do show a dramatic rise in skier visits. Most of the increase is clustered at Belleayre in the Catskills. Skier traffic at Gore Mountain has risen more modestly, while ski pass sales at Whiteface near Lake Placid have actually declined slightly.
And while crowds and revenues are up, ORDA’s expenses are also rising fast in ways that experts say will be difficult to contain. Since Pratt took over as head of the organization, the value of its assets—buildings, equipment, vehicles—has nearly doubled from $241 million to roughly $463 million.
That means sharply higher carrying costs. The Authority has to hire more staff and pay for more repairs and upkeep in the harsh mountain environments where ORDA operates. “New York’s cost here isn’t just half a billion dollars,” says Zimbalist, the economist at Smith College who studies public funding for sports projects. “Beyond that it will be the maintenance and updating of these facilities that will go on for decades and decades.”
More than five years after the state’s spending surge on ORDA began, Pratt acknowledged he simply doesn’t know how much public money will be necessary to sustain the Olympic Authority’s operations.
“It’s beyond the scope of what I know,” he said. “Every time we open up a new operation, it’s a new operation. It’s been hard to budget because you’re forecasting into the future. We’ve been so busy with construction and modernization.” Pressed for an estimate of future state spending on ORDA, Pratt shrugged and said, “I think it will decrease and level out.”
But ORDA’s attractions aren’t just costly to maintain. They also face aggressive competition. This level of public spending gives the Authority a powerful edge over private resorts that operate nearby, but without constant upgrades and new amenities, paid for by taxpayers, that advantage won’t last.
“The emphasis in the industry is always do something new,” said Martens. “Every ski center is looking for new announcements every year to keep up with our competitors in Maine, Vermont and other places.” Asked for his view on how much ORDA will need from New York State to keep its edge in future years, Martens also declined to answer. “I’m not prepared to put a number figure on that.”
In fact, ORDA officials have put a number on the future price tag to taxpayers. In December 2021, the organization approved a five-year plan to request $80 million a year from taxpayers for capital projects. Then at a board meeting last month, the organization voted to boost that request to $100 million a year at least through 2027. ORDA also expects to require more than $14 million a year in operating subsidies.
We could find no plan for annual state subsidies to ever decline.
Perhaps the biggest reason no one can predict ORDA’s economic trajectory is climate change. ORDA officials point with pride to investments they’ve made to reduce the carbon footprint and energy costs of their operations. New snow- and ice-making equipment has already made their facilities more resilient as temperatures rise.
But Martens acknowledged those measures may not be enough. “It’s a question I can’t answer fully. I just don’t know the answer. All the metrics in climate are going in the wrong direction at this point,” he said. What’s clear is another winter like 2016—or a string of seasons when rain falls instead of snow—could force New York State to spend even more money to keep the operation afloat.
It’s important to note that our reporting found no evidence of corruption or self-dealing anywhere in ORDA’s culture. The people shaping the Olympic Authority’s future appear convinced it will soon emerge as an even bigger, more vital economic engine for the Adirondack and Catskill Parks. They talk with a sense of mission about nurturing the region’s unique culture of winter sport.
But many of the people interviewed for this story also said the Olympic Authority needs to shrink its reliance on Albany—and the sooner the better. If New York were to face another budget crisis, or elect a governor with less passion for Lake Placid’s Olympic heritage, ORDA would be vulnerable.
“I would think after the state invested this kind of money, they would expect ORDA to generate enough revenue to break even at least,” said Lake Placid businessman Marc Galvin. “You can’t have a big deficit at the end of the year and hope somebody’s going to kick in the money for you. You’ve got to figure out creative ways to use what you have and generate that revenue.”
So far, however, ORDA’s reliance on state taxpayers appears to be moving in the opposite direction. Requests for annual operating subsidies have risen three-fold under Pratt’s tenure, from $3.8 million to more than $14 million a year. The organization clearly believes next year’s infusion of $104 million in capital dollars—much of it for projects not yet specified—won’t be the last.
“As we’ve been working through our projects, we’re finding more skeletons in the closets,” Pratt said, referring to maintenance and repair projects that turned out to be more expensive than expected.
In a statement to Adirondack Life, Governor Hochul voiced strong support for ORDA funding on the vastly larger scale established on Pratt’s watch.
“As a result of almost four decades of minimal investment, ORDA venues required an increased level of investment over the past six years,” a Hochul spokesperson said in an email. “Thanks to these investments, the Olympic Authority is poised for long-term success.”
When Pratt was asked if he worries that Albany officials and lawmakers might tighten the purse strings before his sweeping vision for ORDA is realized, he smiled and shook his head.
“I’m very comfortable they’re viewing us as part of the economic solution,” he said. “I would expect [taxpayer subsidies] would reduce in time. They’ve given us time to get through this evolution so we can stand on our own two feet a bit more.”
That may be so, but Pratt himself won’t be around to see his vision realized or to lead the juggernaut organization he created. After the May ORDA meeting, when board members approved another $38 million in capital projects, Pratt abruptly announced his departure.
ORDA’S IMPACT ON THE COMMUNITY
Anyone who remembers Lake Placid’s Main Street in the doldrum years that followed the 1980 Winter Olympics knows the village has seen a renaissance, fueled in part by hundreds of millions of dollars in public spending.
These days most storefronts are full, with high-end shops, bistros and boutiques. Sidewalks and streets are busy most seasons of the year. ORDA’s convention center, museum and sports venues are state-of-the-art.
Over the last decade, bed and sales tax revenues have grown steadily in the Olympic region, outpacing the statewide average. Property values soared. Tourism has always been at the heart of Lake Placid’s identity and ORDA has helped maintain the mountain village’s brand as a must-see destination.
But other crucial indicators raise questions about the long-term impact of New York’s massive taxpayer investment in the community.
Beginning in 2011, the town of North Elba, which includes Lake Placid, has seen a steady decline in year-round population—losing more than 10% of its residents. The local school district’s enrollment has dropped even faster over that period, losing roughly 17% of its students.
The total number of people employed in the Olympic region is stagnant. In recent years, Lake Placid has seen a crippling housing shortage, compounded by the spread of short-term rental properties, making it difficult for workers to live in the community.
Not all of Lake Placid’s challenges can be linked to ORDA’s rapid growth, but former ORDA CEO Mike Pratt acknowledged the community is now simply too costly for many of his organization’s workers: “There are some [employees] that are struggling.”
Measuring economic pros and cons of the Olympic Authority is further complicated by the organization’s history of making claims that are difficult or impossible to verify. ORDA officials say their venues and the jobs they offer have a rapidly growing impact in the Adirondacks and Catskills, driving more than $352 million in economic activity each year. But ORDA officials were making similar claims to reporters as early as 2012, estimating then that their total economic impact was already a nearly identical $347 million.
In recent months, ORDA also trumpeted a rapid increase in the number of tourists its venues attract, with total visitors topping one million for the first time. “The Olympic Authority estimates this is an increase of more than 15% from pre-pandemic visitation,” ORDA said in a statement.
But as early as 2020, ORDA was boasting of attracting nearly the same number of tourists—claiming 968,900 visitors “including day trips and overnight trips.” A spokesperson said the two numbers reflect different methods of counting visitors.
The bottom line is that it’s difficult to know exactly how this massive new investment in ORDA is reshaping this small mountain community. In our reporting, we could find no clear assessment or plan for what that money will do for the village’s residents.
The current data suggests ORDA is contributing to a robust tourism and resort economy. But there are also signs that the benefits of the Olympic Authority’s growth may go mostly to a shrinking number of aging, wealthy property owners in Lake Placid, while failing to attract or improve the lives of a new generation of workers and families. —B.M.
Brian Mann is a correspondent for National Public Radio who lives in Westport, New York. Portions of this article rely on research and reporting conducted while Mann was Adirondack bureau chief for North Country Public Radio.
Nicholas Mann, who grew up in Saranac Lake, is a financial analyst in New York City. He contributed to this article as co-author and lead researcher.
This article has been updated since publication and changed to correct an error in the print version. USA Luge’s president was Jim Leahy, not Mike Leahy.