The feel-good story of the winter has long-term potential as a model for our region.
There was a whirlwind of activity “behind the scenes” as it were, during the week of Nov. 15 in Lake Placid.
It all started with a phone call on a Tuesday afternoon from a local media contact with an inquiry about a rumor they’d heard — could it be true that the 2011 Empire State Winter Games (ESWG) were cancelled?
A call from our CEO to Albany confirmed it; the Games had been eliminated from the 2011 New York state budget.
I prepped our talking points for the flurry of incoming calls. Yes, the arrival of the athletes and their entourages for the Games represents positive economic impact, but really, the Games represent much more to the region.
Lake Placid has been shaped by the unique combination of two factors: strong community and business leadership, and youth athletics. Young athletes have called this home for a long time. From Charles Jewtraw, the Lake Placid speed skater who won the very first gold medal at the very first Olympic Winter Games in Chamonix in 1924, to the hundreds of athletes who now train here yearround courtesy of the Olympic Training Center, youth have trained and competed here in events as varied as Can Am hockey and LaCrosse.
The Empire State Winter Games had been held in Lake Placid for 30 years, bringing about 1,200 young athletes from regions throughout the State to compete in amateur competition in disciplines including alpine and cross-country skiing, snowshoeing, ski jumping and ice skating.
For many participating athletes, these Games have led to World Class and Olympic competition. For others, they’ve provided an opportunity for scholarships to higher education. For all participants, the Empire State Winter Games represent a signature event in their lives.
Community leaders weren’t going to let this tradition come to an end for the youth in the State for which it is so important.
Less than 24 hours after learning about the budget cuts, Lake Placid Mayor Craig Randall, North Elba Town Supervisor Roby Politi and Visitors Bureau CEO James McKenna met to discuss a solution that would allow the Games to resume as scheduled this winter. They made a commitment at that meeting; the Games would go on.
They then confirmed through Ted Blazer, CEO of the Olympic Regional Development Authority, that the sports venue management was firmly on board, and by 6 p.m. on Wednesday I was informed that we would tell everyone about it at a press conference in the morning, at which time the Town of Wilmington joined the effort.
The good news was disseminated, and moment the press conference ended, the organizational ball started rolling. An organizing committee was formed, and everyone went to work to transition to the new local infrastructure, develop communication platforms, confirm competition logistics and the biggie: to raise enough money to pull this off — all in only three months.
Then something amazing happened. In a show of collective Northern Adirondack can-do spirit, the entire region stepped up. In a short time, a wave of support had been offered: Essex County, Harrietstown, St. Armand and the Village of Saranac Lake, the Plattsburgh/North Country Chamber of Commerce, Sen. Betty Little and Adirondack Medical Center were all on board.
Private sector sponsors such as Stewart’s Shops, C and S Companies, Sotheby’s and more than 25 local businesses and many individuals wrote checks to the organizing committee.
Some of the local athletes who participated in the Games as youth and went on to compete in the Vancouver Olympic Winter Games donated items for an online auction with 100 percent of the proceeds going to the cause.
A new website, complete with athlete registration was developed, and new events, such as adaptive competitions in alpine skiing and cross country skiing, were added. In a new twist; snowshoeing was offered with no qualification required. And, for the first time in ESWG history and another showcase of the regional support for this event, there will be a torch run Feb 24-25 leading into the Opening Ceremony in the Olympic Center.
The coalition of communities and organizations that took responsibility for these games serve as a great template for the future. The 31st annual Empire State Winter Games are the very definition of teamwork; an entire region can work together for something that benefits everyone — especially the youth of our state.
The positive momentum promises to continue. The organizing committee for the ESWG has plans to grow the event over time, modeled after the International Olympic Committee’s Youth Olympic Games; a celebration of youth in sport that seeks to create enthusiasm in young people worldwide for the values of excellence, respect and friendship.
And with an extra nine months to plan and experience under our belts, the 2012 Games are sure to be an even greater success.
All are welcome to attend the Opening Ceremony at the Olympic Center on Friday night at 6 p.m., and the Festival of the Games at the municipal beach in LP on Saturday, both with live music from Barefoot Truth. Visit empirestatewintergames.com for more information and a link to the online auction.