HIGHMOUNT - Local residents, business owners and employees of the Belleayre Mountain Ski Center turned out in droves at the state-owned facility Saturday morning to rally against Belleayre budget cuts that many say would threaten their livelihood.
The event, organized by the Coalition to Save Belleayre, attracted more than 200 people who were drawn to the mountain by a word-of-mouth message that the coalition, which was to meet that morning, decided just days ago to open the session to the public. The matter at hand for all involved was the recent announcement that Belleayre faces severe budget cuts, putting as many as 300 jobs in jeopardy and reducing ski operations for the coming winter season.
One by one, speakers took turns explaining how the cutbacks would do harm to them personally and hurt the region surrounding Belleayre, which is in the Shandaken hamlet of Highmount, near the border of Ulster and Delaware counties.
The governments of the three towns likely to be most affected - Shandaken and Hardenburgh in Ulster County, and Middletown in Delaware County - had representatives on hand Saturday to say their respective municipalities already has taken official stances opposing the cuts planned by the state Department of Environmental Conservation, which operates the ski center.
U.S. Rep. Maurice Hinchey, D-Hurley, sent word that he would reach out to Gov. David Paterson and work to halt any cutbacks. State Sen. John Bonacic's chief of staff, Langdon Chapman, pledged the Mount Hope Republican senator's support to the cause, saying Albany needs to be aware of Belleayre's importance to the local economy.
"People get their lives changed every day because Belleayre exists," Chapman said, adding that he feels a bit like the main character in Charles Dickens' "Oliver Twist."
"Please sir, can we have an economy, too?" he said, to applause from the crowd.
Len Bernardo, a candidate for Ulster County executive, suggested a new name for DEC.
"It should be renamed the Department of Economic Cuts," said Bernardo, an enrolled Conservative from Accord who is running on the Republican and Conservative lines.
Robert Shapiro, a Fleischmanns resident, said everyone knows the state needs to make budget cuts, but he questioned the fairness of plans to cut as deep into Belleayre as is being discussed. He wondered if other state-run recreation facilities face the same fate.
"Are the people at Bethpage Golf Course wondering if they will have the grass cut there? Are the folks at Jones Beach wondering if the number of lifeguards will be reduced?" he asked.
When operating fully, Belleayre, off state Route 28, boasts the Catskills' only Cat-access skiing and a widened and improved halfpipe and Area 51 Terrain Park. With 47 trails, parks and glades and eight lifts, including a new high-speed quad, Belleayre has evolved over the years, especially since the 1980s, when it faced closure. Skier visits have grown from 70,000 in 1995 to more than 175,000.
It was noted at the meeting on Saturday that, at present, no one really knows the extent of the proposed cuts, but speculation among those concerned puts them anywhere between a closing of the facility to a bare-bones operation that would use only a couple of lifts and a handful of trails.
The Department of Environmental Conservation said on Friday that Belleayre will be open seven days a week this season, but officials would not discuss the details of any possible cuts, saying only that nothing has been decided.
Representatives of the Coalition to Save Belleayre handed out contact sheets to those who attended Saturday's rally and urged them to make use of them. The names on the sheets includes state Environmental Commissioner Alexander "Pete" Grannis; Paterson; state Assemblymen Kevin Cahill, D-Kingston, and Clifford Crouch, R-Guilford; Hinchey and U.S. Rep. Kirsten Gillibrand, D-Greenport; Bonacic; and county officials in Ulster and Delaware counties.