By Jim Odato
When Big Tupper resort developer Michael D. Foxman turned eighty last April, he checked into what the future holds for a man of his age, size, and health. “I have a life expectancy of ten years,” he said recently.
During his remaining time, Foxman predicts, the woods south of Tupper Lake will become filled with luxury homes in “the first and only resort and vacation-home community in the Adirondack Park.”
Many locals in the village of 3,540 became wary over the past decade. But several interviewed now say Foxman’s Adirondack Club and Resort is clearly on its way. Still, a group of diehard skeptics doubt he can pull off the projected $500 million development.
Both sides of the divide say they hear rumors and see signs of new investors. They see that work on a private road is under way. They have watched the many trucks ferrying workers or materials to the site since the fall. They note waterfront property near the site getting scooped up by deep-pocketed friends of Foxman’s key partner, Thomas Lawson. They wonder if Lawson has recruited someone to bankroll development.
Fourteen years ago, when he dreamt up the ambitious project, Foxman had not yet brought in Lawson, an Ogdensburg native who Foxman says made a name for himself by developing exclusive Bahama islands for the super rich. Foxman announced in 2004 his plan of reopening Big Tupper, the downhill ski area that had once been a source of pride for the village. The mountain was a center of social activity and an economic engine for Tupper Lake. The town and a not-for-profit tried operating the trails for several years but haven’t been able to keep it going. It closed in 1999, though it has opened on a limited basis with volunteers on and off for years.
Foxman hopes to lure people from big cities, including his stomping ground of Philadelphia, to build upscale vacation homes or to stay at a new hotel. He called for amenities that would attract lovers of nature, outdoor recreation, and fresh air. To many environmentalists, his dream seemed more like a nightmare, a sprawling subdivision that would fragment the woods.
Tupper Lake Supervisor Patricia Littlefield said the road construction, which began several months ago, shows that the Foxman’s plan for renovating the ski area and creating a woodsy gated community is becoming real. “Things are moving,” she remarked.
Contributing to the rosier outlook: big debts, such as tax delinquencies, are getting resolved; developers intend to offer limited skiing at Big Tupper next year; and Lawson has been spotted with rich sidekicks in recent months, two of whom have been buying properties along Lake Simond near the ACR site, according to interviews and records.
The new road, which will be maintained by a homeowners association, will allow access to lots where builders may erect “Great Camp” homes of up to 4,200 square feet on parcels ranging from thirty to 1,200 acres. It is the initial phase of a much bigger plan. Selling prices range from $2.5 million to $5 million for large lots and $750,000 to $1.75 million smaller ones, said Foxman.
These expensive getaway tracts are what the developers hope to sell first to raise some capital for the rest of the project, said James LaValley. He is a fourth-generation Tupper Laker and real-estate broker and investor whose office is across the street from the ACR headquarters. LaValley has been close friends with Lawson, the face of the project. He said he talks to the developer twice a day and stays on top of the project.
“I have never been more optimistic,” LaValley said. He said the access road for the Great Camps will be finished by late spring and sales on several sites should be completed by year’s end. An international marketing and design firm has been retained to help get the word out about the ACR, he said, and details will be announced soon. “We will certainly be looking for some Canadian and European buyers,” Foxman said. A local firm with a sensibility about the North Country will also be employed, he said.
After spending millions on litigation and permitting, the developers began road construction last fall after securing final permits. The regulatory process with the Adirondack Park Agency and defense of a lawsuit and appeals by Protect the Adirondacks and the Sierra Club contributed costs that reached $10 million, said Foxman. Concerns by the environmental groups resulted in the developers cutting fifty-three sites on steep slopes from the plan.
But large debts have been chasing Lawson’s investments outside of the project, records show. Two small building contractors filed liens in 2016.
They seek a combined $118,000. The contractors worked on a downtown Tupper Lake building Lawson acquired a few doors from the ACR office. Also, the IRS filed tax liens against Lawson and his wife, Susan L. Lawson, saying the couple owe a total of $507,812 in income taxes from 2007, 2008, and 2009, public records show. Banks started foreclosure actions on some of Lawson’s private-property holdings. Lawson has not responded to messages left with his secretary.
Foxman and Lawson are partners in Preserve Associates on the ACR project. Foxman said he is not fully briefed on his partner’s personal finances. He said Preserve Associates has worked out its missed payments. A December 2016 lien filed by the LA Group, a design firm in Saratoga Springs, for $787,045, was resolved in April, said Matthew Jones, a lawyer for the LA Group. Jones declined to specify terms of payment.
Preserve Associates got behind on paying property taxes on six Tupper Lake properties as well. According to county treasurer records, Preserve Associates entered into a plan in May 2017 on the delinquencies. Debt outstanding totaled $522,889, treasurer records show. The installment plan calls for $35,526 in monthly payments, records show.
One of the selling points of the project—planned on more than 6,300 acres—is its potential to lower taxes for town property owners. It is also billed as a generator of jobs and lubrication for a rusty economy in a region that has been losing population and where the median family income is just above $50,000. Preserve Associates acquired the property last May, but the former owner is holding the mortgage of $5.2 million, records show. Foxman said a balloon payment is due in September, but he expects payment well before then, declining to explain how.
The developers expect the land surrounding the ski facility to sprout upwards of seven hundred condos, vacation homes, and luxury camps and a sixty-bedroom hotel. The developers plan to reinvigorate the ski slope, and they also hope to improve the town golf course (they have been working with pro Greg Norman) and a marina.
LaValley says Big Tupper should be partly open in the winter of 2018-19 and fully functioning the season after. But it may be wishful thinking. Local businessman Peter Day, who owned the ski facility until selling it to Foxman for $1.3 million, said the mountain needs $15 million in equipment, construction work, and trail repair. He said all the top-of-the-line snowmaking equipment he sold Foxman was liquidated at thirty-five cents on the dollar by the developers. “That’s how desperate they were,” Day said. “A normal person would have cried uncle years ago.”
He said Foxman has had to overcome doubters from the onset. Many pointed to his 1993 federal indictment on a charge of conspiracy to misapply funds. The allegations came after the 1985 insolvancy of Sunrise Savings and Loan Association, of which Foxman was chairman until 1983. The charge was dismissed because of the government’s delay in prosecuting the case. Two top officers of the S&L were convicted at trial, and two others pleaded guilty. Foxman said the charge was “ridiculous” and that alleged crimes didn’t have anything to do with him.
Tupper Lake Village Mayor Paul Maroun, counsel to State Senator Betty Little, said the project seems to be on track at last and includes a top-notch ski facility with snowmaking equipment. The fix-up of the slopes will be funded at least partly by 7.25 percent of the sale price on the twenty-four Great Camp lots, he said. “We saw the latest plan for the mountain a couple weeks ago with Betty; that mountain will be as modern as anything,” Maroun said.
He said he has been encouraged that Lawson has spent time with the heir to the Colgate fortune, Stanley H. Rumbough of Greenwich, Connecticut. Rumbough’s mother, the actress Dina Merrill, was the daughter of Marjorie Merriweather Post, former owner of the Camp Topridge on Upper St. Regis Lake.
Maroun and Littlefield say they know Rumbough is buying property around the project site. The mayor said Rumbough has purchased Lawson’s compound. “I met Rumbough right at the end of 2017, and he was here two weeks ago for a week. I know he is investing in this project,” the mayor said recently.
Foxman would not confirm Rumbough’s involvement but did offer the correct pronunciation of his name: “Rumbo.”
Another investor, Maroun said, is Michael McNally, whose Upper Saranac Lake home was listed in the Wall Street Journal last year at $2.1 million. McNally also is very involved in the ACR project, Maroun said, but he could not provide specifics. Neither Rumbough nor McNally would grant an interview. However, limited-liability companies, one registered to McNally and another listing Tupper Lake lawyer Janelle Lavigne as a contact, have been purchasing properties along Lake Simond near the project site. Lavigne, who has done work for Lawson, did not respond to messages left on her business phone.
Tupper Lake Trustee Ronald A. LaScala said he had been skeptical of the project but now has come to believe that the ACR will benefit the village. But it took a while for him to swallow stories of contractors and taxes not being paid.
“It makes you question everything,” said LaScala, a small-business operator. He thinks the ACR could draw a national hotel chain to the village, something that could improve tourism. “It’s going to be a development,” he said.
Former Mayor Mickey Desmarais said it’s past time for the developers to perform. “That carrot that was dangled in front of us,” he said. “People wanted to ski, and contractors wanted to work. A lot of people were promised jobs. This excited the community. They saw something good that was going to happen. It didn’t.”
Other skeptics are mum, partly, they say, because naysayers are shunned or ridiculed for bringing up fears of payments-in-lieu-of-tax (PILOT) schemes or failed tax agreements. Attorney Jack Delehanty, once a vocal critic of the project, said he’s staying out of the fray. “My life is much more pleasant when I don’t have to suffer the stings and barbs of people who have totally bought into this project,” he said.
Foxman and Preserve Associates have been politically active. In 2010, he contributed to two Republican legislators whose districts covered Tupper Lake—$800 to Senator Little’s campaign and $500 to former Assemblywoman Janet Duprey’s. From 2005 to 2006, the partnership gave $1,500 to the state Senate Republican Campaign Committee. Foxman said the project is moving ahead on the merits and any PILOT requests are more likely to come from hotel builders. He says his group has five agreements on sales of Great Camp lots and more sales will follow as will some residential construction this year.
Having spent time in alpine resort areas, such as Stratton Mountain in Vermont and leisure destinations, such as Martha’s Vineyard, he is convinced that the vitality of the village is tied to the health of the Adirondack Club and Resort. “For our deal to flourish, the village has to flourish,” he said. Will it happen in his lifetime? “I think that the ten years is a realistic period of time, that it could be done more quickly,” he said. “Or it could take much longer.”d