Community group has set sights on town acquiring Big Tupper
By James M. Odato
If Tupper Lake transforms into an outdoor recreational mecca, historians may track the conversion to a welding shop. There, a dozen villagers laid maps over folding tables and marked new paths for cross-country skiing, mountain biking, snowmobiling, golfing and downhill expansion.
“We want Tupper Lake to be Trail Town USA,” said Mark Moeller, a local banker. He is among a group prodding government officials to embrace a series of projects it enumerated during the pandemic. Acquiring Big Tupper tops the list. The alpine center has been dormant for two decades and could be on the auction block later this year.
Called the Tupper Lake Business Group, Moeller and a few collaborators have been meeting since March 2020 to build an argument for $2.3 million in town spending. They organized and brainstormed in a building where vehicles are welded, a meeting place set up at the Tupper Lake Supply hardware store and lumber yard complex run by Rick Dattola.
The group has gathered virtually by Zoom in recent months but unveiled plans before live, physically-distanced audiences at a Knights of Columbus hall for community feedback. They conducted a half-dozen Power Point presentations to explain how a series of new trails and improvements — projects big and small — could make Tupper Lake a hub of year-round sporting activities and tourism. They envision the former mill town as a draw for extended-stay visits.
The group delivered its 40-page plan to town officials late last year. That spurred a letter to the Franklin County Legislature on Feb. 20. The letter from Town of Tupper Lake Supervisor Patricia Littlefield alerts the county that the town would like to chance to pay the tax debt on Big Tupper, if the 445-acre Mount Morris is taken over via foreclosure by the county. The group doesn’t want the mountain to go to public auction.
The owners of Big Tupper, who bought the mountain and another 5,800 acres around it as part of an ill-fated plan for a resort and residential development, owe about $170,000 in property taxes and other fees on the alpine facility alone. The owners’ proposed $500 million Adirondack Club and Resort involved 700 condominiums, vacation homes and luxury great camps and a hotel and has been targeted for foreclosure.
The business group’s plan centers on the ski center. The group sees the mountain as one of several natural assets in the region that could be linked into a network of trails that help stimulate the economy.
“There are components of that plan that we like. I think we all agree Big Tupper is the first priority,” said John Quinn, deputy town supervisor. “Big Tupper – that’s the key to our winter economy around here.”
He said parts of the plan, such as installing bike trails along Tupper Lake’s shoreline in the forest preserve, are more problematic than others. Quinn, for 30 years a project reviewer at the Adirondack Park Agency, said other components are more feasible, such as improving the municipal golf course and the James C. Frenette Cross Country Ski Trails at the course.
The business group has been appealing for money through crowdfunding to help underwrite the effort and has raised $11,000, said Rick Donah. Donah joined the group after first embarking on a petition drive aimed at getting state government to take over Big Tupper. He gathered almost 10,500 signatures the past year, but abandoned the effort once it became clear that state government was consumed with the Covid-19 crisis and lacked the appetite for assuming more costs.
The crowdfunding effort is part of the group’s goal of booking $100,000 in cash and in-kind contributions, such as commitments by local companies and civic groups to dig ditches or upgrade public restrooms. The group also hopes to get grants, but it would also call on the Town of Tupper Lake to issue bonds for all or part of the cost of the plan. If the full cost was borne by the town from borrowing, the municipality would have to raise taxes on property owners. The group estimates the extra cost would be about $29 a year more for homes assessed at $100,000.
The plan hinges on many things happening, or not happening. If no one pays the outstanding taxes, interest and penalties owed Franklin County, the mountain could be set aside for the town.
Anyone can pay the debt to remove the mountain from the county’s foreclosure process, said Paul Maroun, the Tupper Lake mayor and one of seven Franklin County legislators. He added that it would not be surprising if a party, such as lienholders, came forward to pay the debt.
A simple majority of the county legislature would have to approve the town’s pitch for Tupper Lake to acquire the property without scheduling it for public auction. A judge would also have to agree to give the town first dibs instead of soliciting bids.
Maroun said he is confident he could persuade the county board to abide by the town’s wishes.
Maroun said that the business group has underestimated the cost to complete the projects it proposes. And if the town did acquire Big Tupper, he said, it would have to find someone willing to spend substantial sums to update the alpine facility with snowmaking equipment, speedy lifts, and a lodge.
“It’s going to cost several million dollars to bring that mountain up to good skiing. Who’s going to put the money up to run it?”— Paul Maroun, Tupper Lake mayor and Franklin County legislator
Moeller said the key is to first get control of the mountain. From there, the town could try to recruit an operator. “We are hoping the operator makes the investment,” Datolla said.
Preserves Associates, the proposed developers of the Adirondack Club and Resort, the failed project to build residences and reopen Big Tupper, have been unable to deliver on the vision after years of working out permitting requirements, lawsuits and borrowing arrangements. The development group became crushed by debt and owes creditors millions of dollars. It may lose the mountain and much of the property around Big Tupper it acquired from the former Oval Wood Dish Corp.
A corporation called Crossroads Preserve LLC, headed by local investor Stanley Rumbough, has a lien of $2.28 million on the project site. A related entity, Crossroads ADK, sued the project developers in attempts to push foreclosure on the properties, not including the mountain. Lawyer for the Rumbough-backed entities, Simos C. Dimas, said his clients support the town’s takeover of Big Tupper.
“The town deserves a functioning ski hill and we support anything that accomplishes that,” Dimas said. “We tried. We put in hundreds of thousands of dollars there…because Stanley Rumbough is committed to the town.” He said although he did not own the ski facility, Rumbough paid for some upgrades, including a ski patrol hut.
The Rumbough group continues to push its court case to foreclose on the land surrounding the mountain, Dimas said. It is his client’s intention to gain control of the real estate and find a developer to build residences around the mountain on the former Oval Wood Dish property.
Entrepreneurs see potential in the region. The Oval Wood Dish plant building, which was not mortgaged to the resort development group, is targeted for purchase by a Syracuse company that specializes in historic building renovation. Lahinch Group LLC intends to build residences within the plant, Maroun said. Joseph Gehm, owner of Lahinch, said he is awaiting completion of the building purchase before discussing plans. The goal is to market the dwelling to renters, Maroun said.
The apartments would be even more attractive to renters should the mountain become active again for downhill skiing, Maroun noted.
Patricia Littlefield, town supervisor, said the town has had heavy population losses since Big Tupper operated from the 1960s through 1990s. The U.S. Census reported 4,114 village residents in 1990 and 3,443 in 2019. Those who remain hold the mountain dear and share fond memories working or playing there.
“There’s so much sentiment,” Littlefield said. Her letter to the county legislature caps several years of talks between her and the county treasurer’s office about the town’s concerns about the fate of the mountain, she said. Its foreclosure sale could be set in May, she said.
“They know we’re interested in it,” she said. If the town is granted the opportunity to obtain it, the price of back-taxes is affordable, she said. However, the business group’s overall plan to build up the region’s recreational network would cost much more than they expect, she said, because the municipality must pay prevailing wages and would likely have to hire consultants for engineering and planning.
She and Maroun said much of the business group’s plan has already been in municipal plans, awaiting resources. But they credit the business group for its detailed study and willingness to work with public officials.
Moeller said the plan will likely evolve, but this moment, when Big Tupper may be available, is the time to strike. “We’ve got some untapped assets and we’ve got some assets that are only half tapped,” he said.