‘Back on the map’ for world sports, Lake Placid seeks more from Winter Universiade
By James M. Odato
A group organized to exploit New York’s Olympic platforms is preparing for 2,500 top athletes from around the globe to compete over snow and ice at some of the state’s most prestigious sports venues in January 2023.
If things go as planned—and all of the needed funds come through in a suddenly challenged economy—the imprint on the region around Lake Placid could last decades longer.
The return of the World University Winter Games to the site of the 1932 and 1980 Winter Olympics brings more than just athletic competition: dwelling units, roadways, new recreational hubs and more. Some officials envision an electric shuttle system that will stay on to serve Adirondack residents and visitors.
The organizing committee of the university games, scheduled to run over 11 days, has several goals supporting long-lasting and green transportation and housing benefits.
These University Games, also known as the Winter Universiade, could serve as a catalyst for the North Country to get tens of millions of dollars in state funds to fix up 40-year-old Olympic sites and keep the High Peaks on the international winter sports calendar for generations. They could also close some of the major gaps in available living and public transit systems within a 14-county area, planners said.
“There’s a whole list of legacy items,” said James McKenna, president of Regional Office of Sustainable Tourism. He is also a member of the Adirondack North Country Sports Council, which is organizing the Games. The event was last held in Lake Placid in 1972 and has been conducted outside the United States since then.
Lake Placid organizers won the 2023 bid after years of planning by local officials. Aug. 28, 2018, the International University Sports Federation, called FISU, signed a contract with the organizing committee, the New York Olympic Regional Development Authority, the United States International University Sports Federation and the Village of Lake Placid. Two weeks earlier, Gov. Andrew Cuomo had issued an executive order that required the state, the community and local governments to work together in the “closest possible coordination” to deliver the event “in the best possible manner and under the best possible conditions for the benefit of the world university sports movement.”
He formed a commission and set up $134.5 million for ORDA to fix up the Olympic venues it manages for the state, plus another $10 million for energy efficiency and maintenance projects.
ORDA signed a contract to send $4.6 million to FISU, the Switzerland-based organization that conducts winter and summer competitions for college athletes every two years in a different city. Those nonrefundable fees opened the financial alliance New York formed with FISU. More will be paid in revenue sharing deals that should be worth millions to the group as the organizing committee finds marketing and advertising partners.
Cuomo also signed into law a major piece of environmental legislation last year, the Climate Leadership and Community Protection Act. It may aid efforts to get funds for the groundbreaking projects envisioned to fill the needs of housing and moving athletes.
Beyond the rinks and ski trails, the target is on the fixed assets that will accompany the event, McKenna and others say. “I’m looking forward to a lot of good coming out of this,” Lake Placid Mayor Craig Randall said. He traveled to Almaty, Kazakhstan, in 2017 to observe that year’s Winter Universiade, and to Naples, Italy, in 2019 for the Summer Universiade.
Two sets of developers propose building apartments and homes on the fringe of Lake Placid. One project would be a key campus of three sites planned to house athletes, coaches and officials during the University Games. That project is proposed on the edge of the village at the former W. Alton Jones Cell Science Center, more than 34 acres of buildings and land that would become an athletes’ village in 2023, and then permanent housing to help attract and retain people who want to live in Adirondacks.
The project needs the Adirondack Park Agency to reclassify the land for higher density. It is set up for water, sewer and power.
PEG LLC owns the land. Its partners include local entrepreneurs Edwin Weibrecht and Gregory Peacock. The proposed developer is Whiteface Inn builder Joseph Barile, a former Olympic luger.
Hundreds of homes
“I think it’s going to be a fabulous asset for the town and village,” said North Elba Supervisor Jay Rand, who was also part of the delegation that toured Kazakhstan.
A recent consultant’s report pointed out a shortage of 1,500 housing units in the region. The Barile project would add 250 to 300, Randall said.
Ashley Walden, the executive director of the organizing committee, also a former Olympic luger, is planning for a few athlete village sites. About 1,400 athletes stay in the Lake Placid area, with potential use of 98 rooms at the Olympic training center. Also, about 600 hockey players would likely stay an hour and a half away in the Potsdam-Canton corridor. Colleges there will lend their rinks, with games played at Clarkson University. Ice at State University of New York campuses in Canton and Potsdam will host practices.
Several referees will staff those contests, which will culminate with a championship game at the Olympic hockey arena in Lake Placid.
“The big benefit is all the cultural exchange opportunities,” said Clarkson Vice President Kelly Chezum, who also journeyed to Kazakhstan. The school is anticipating dorm availability for visiting athletes, she said.
Gore Mountain will host freestyle skiing, and about 200 athletes may stay in that Warren County area. North Creek Supervisor Andrea Hogan said she hadn’t been contacted in planning yet. “That affordable housing crunch is felt throughout the park and throughout the North Country,” she said.
Walden is on guard against infectious diseases. Her board moved to Zoom conferences amid the COVID-19 sheltering as she planned for the games. And a FISU delegation postponed its April visit to the Adirondacks until September.
Lodging is also high on Walden’s planning list. She envisions athletes sleeping three to a room, with a bathroom. FISU calls for each athlete to have seven square meters, or about 75 square feet, of living space.
The FISU contract with the organizing committee indicates that athletes can be charged no more than $95 per day for lodging and meals. The organizing committee must try to secure four- or five-star hotel rooms for FISU officials at no more than $159 per night per person for bed and breakfast. FISU requires a headquarters in a four- or five-star hotel. Walden said the Crowne Plaza Lake Placid is the most likely locale.
The contract calls for the organizing committee to arrange for shuttles and team buses and minibuses. Kate Fish, executive director of the Adirondack North Country Association, said the planned transportation system could become the impetus for a new electric bus network within the 14-county area her organization serves. She said the Universiade may help her leverage New York State Energy Research & Development Authority grants for a clean vehicle fleet for the region. Fish is a board member of NYSERDA and said she has discussed this idea with the organizing committee for a year.
Both electric transportation and net-zero housing fit into Cuomo’s goals—now in law—of greater energy efficiency and protection from harmful climate change. Fish likes the fact that the state is up against a deadline: the Jan. 12, 2023, opening ceremony. It may help her push her goal to get the state to help fund the purchase of the electric buses and set up charging stations for bigger vehicles throughout the Adirondack Park, perhaps using solar panels for power.
“We’re using the deadline to fast-track permanent EV infrastructure across the region,” Fish said.
The builder, Barile, has hired Saranac Lake architect Jesse Schwartzberg as an energy consultant for the housing project. He is devoted to designing projects with green building elements for net-zero energy consumption. Schwartzberg declined comment, but he has previously secured NYSERDA funding for clean building construction, including $750,000 for an apartment complex in Schenectady County.
All these envisioned benefits could help the state maximize a return on its investment while bringing wealth to a community that will take some time getting back in shape following the COVID-19 closings, Supervisor Rand said.
“It’s an opportunity to get other things done,” he said. “It’ll put us back on the map, as far as international settings.”
The planning seems to be on track at this point, said organizing committee member Delise O’Meally, who is also secretary general of the U.S. International University Sports Federation and on the executive board of FISU.
Her organization is coping with uncertainty as FISU finishes plans for the Winter University Games next year in Lucerne, Switzerland, she said, and then the summer games in China in August 2021. “I think we’re generally in a good place,” she said. The pandemic caused FISU to cancel some events in the first quarter of this year, but the worldwide coronavirus shutdowns could lead to enhanced popularity of the live events as people realize the importance of sports in society.
“We hope as we emerge from this there will be a greater appetite for sports or engagement as long as we find a way to do it in a safe and healthy way,” she said.
The organizing committee is required to purchase insurance for liabilities, medical coverage, death and disablement, property damage and cancellation.
ORDA officials haven’t forecast whether their capital funds will arrive as planned as the state deals with multi-billion-dollar revenue shortfalls associated with economic closings during the pandemic. CEO Michael Pratt suggested in a public meeting this spring that delays may occur. ORDA deferred some of the planned improvements to Olympic facilities in Lake Placid as a result.
Authority spokesman Scott Christiansen was unable to clarify if funding is secure, but the authority stated that New York is going to need help from Washington to close a $13 billion budget deficiency this year, and $61 billion over the next several years, created by its attempts to contain the spread of COVID-19.
The uncertainty hasn’t halted Walden’s progress. She recently hired a marketing director who will develop a marketing plan and pursue sponsorships and advertising. FISU will receive 1.5 percent of marketing revenues and the national federation organization will receive 3.5 percent.
The committee is working on the final phase of its master plan, which is due in the fall. The likelihood is that more than 50 countries will be sending student-athletes, several of whom will be Olympians. At least nine compulsory events will be scheduled, such as alpine skiing and biathlon and curling, which may occur in Saranac Lake. A few optional competitions such as ski jumping will be added.
Locals see the University Games as a way to help revive an upstate economy hit by virus closings. Weibrecht, who closed his Mirror Lake Inn when the pandemic swept New York, said the state has been “gracious” in putting its “financial muscle” behind the sporting event in 2023.
“I’m optimistic that it will help the community and that it will happen,” he said.