LAKE PLACID - A contingent of North Country business leaders, elected officials and potentially state Sen. Betty Little will travel to Almaty, Kazakhstan later this winter to learn if the Adirondack region could host a World University Games centered here in the Olympic Village.
Several of these leaders spoke at length Thursday, Jan. 5 about how they see a possible 2023 games as a much-desired economic stimulant for the area, a clear reason to get funding to improve winter sports venues and a shot in the arm for the region's brand as a world-class winter sports destination.
"At this point we are identifying it as the Adirondacks USA World University FISU Games," said Jim McKenna, CEO of the Regional Office of Sustainable Tourism. "That's what it's going to take (as a region)."
From left, North Elba town Councilman Jay Rand, state Olympic Regional Development Authority Executive Vice President Jeffery Byrne, Athlete Minder CEO Mara Smith, Crowne Plaza Resort President and Adirondack Park Agency Commissioner Art Lussi, Regional Office of Sustainable Tourism CEO Jim McKenna and North Elba Supervisor Roby Politi will take an exploratory trip to Almaty, Kazakhstan, this winter to learn more about the World University Games and if Lake Placid could host the international winter sports event.
(News photo — Antonio Olivero)
McKenna will be joined on the trip by, among others, Art Lussi, president of Lake Placid's Crowne Plaza Resort and a state Adirondack Park Agency commissioner. While North Elba Town Supervisor Roby Politi was at the meeting, he will not be traveling to Kazakhstan. All three specified how hosting the global event would have a domino effect, enabling the village and region to accomplish several of its primary economic goals - particularly if the region paired a FISU games in 2023 with an earlier International Children's Games and other global events, such as the Special Olympics World Winter Games.
The trio also said the World University Games is almost viewed as a prerequisite now to legitimately bid for another Olympic Games. McKenna said he and Lake Placid Mayor Craig Randall, who will also travel to Almaty, have learned more about bringing the games here through conversations over the past four years with FISU officials via the World Union of Olympic Cities, which takes place in Lausanne, Switzerland, each year, most recently in November.
"There's been plenty of talk over the last 20 years about the Olympic Games coming back," McKenna said. "That might be not as realistic for us as something like FISU, and as Art (Lussi) said, (with) the progression of the International Children's Games and the FISU games, all of a sudden we are back on the world map for multi-winter sport events.
"If you look at sports like biathlon, ski jumping, alpine, if we can get our facilities back in positions to host those types of events, we are on such a different level again."
Others taking the Kazakhstan trip on Jan. 31 include state Olympic Regional Development Authority Executive Vice President Jeffery Byrne, North Elba Councilman Jay Rand, Adirondack Foundation CEO Cali Brooks, Ski Areas of New York President and CEO Scott Brandi, Clarkson University Vice President of External Relations Kelly Ogden-Chezum, Athlete Minder CEO Mara Smith and legal adviser Douglas Stewart.
This year's games, known across the world as the Winter Universiade, is taking place in Almaty from Jan. 29 to Feb. 8. There have been 27 winter World University Games since 1960 and 28 summer games since 1959. Each has occurred every other year for the past several decades.
Lake Placid, in 1972, was the only American host in the history of the winter games.
The 2019 games are slated for Krasnoyarsk, Russia, and the 2021 games will be in Lausanne.
The winter games consist of competition in alpine skiing, nordic skiing, biathlon, snowboarding, curling, ice hockey, figure skating, synchronized skating, short-track speed skating and up to three optional sports selected by the host country. As many as 2,668 participants and 52 countries have competed in recent years, and the games traditionally have featured national-team-caliber athletes.
The Lake Placid contingent's three-day itinerary includes meetings about financing, marketing rights, minimum requirements to host, venue operations and athlete villages.
McKenna said the group will also learn more about the timeline and bidding process for the games. If they ultimately are interested, they could cast a bid to FISU at the end of next summer.
McKenna said two cities bid for the 2021 games, to his knowledge.
"It's a pretty significant commitment by that country right now, so we have to engage," he said. "If we are going to move forward with this, it's dealing with the issues the Olympic Games deal with. We are going to have to be looking at secure facilities, all of the doping controls, and everything else is all built right into this process. It's like a mini-Olympic Games."
Looking seven years out at a potential 2023 games, Politi, Byrne and Lussi agreed that this would be the largest-scale event to come to the region since the 1980 Winter Olympics - though in sheer numbers, the event likely would be even bigger than that.
Lussi said a volunteer infrastructure of thousands, via northern New York colleges such as Clarkson and SUNY Plattsburgh, would be crucial to hosting. FISU estimates as many as 3,000 volunteers are needed.
"(We) couldn't possibly consider bidding on it without colleges and the surrounding towns and villages," he said.
"And I think on a world stage, if you look at the history of the World University Games, to really be considered in future Olympic bids, you better have hosted a World University Games," Lussi added. "And if you don't do that, not supporting the amateurs, the International Olympic Committee is not that hot on you for going for the big show."
Brooks said interest in the games partially stems from the North Country Regional Economic Development Council's analysis of economic drivers in the North Country. In December 2015, the state REDC process did not grant Lake Placid's request for $4.5 million plan that could have led to a third Lake Placid Olympic bid.
McKenna said securing the World University Games could attract funding for improvements such as Lake Placid's parking and traffic and pedestrian flow, community housing through things such as an athletes' village, and more lodging in Wilmington.
Byrne said funding triggered by the games could help renovate the state-owned Olympic Sports Complex at Mount Van Hoevenberg - used for bobsled, luge, skeleton, nordic skiing and biathlon - as well as the Olympic Jumping Complex, Olympic Center ice arenas, Whiteface Mountain Ski Center and potentially other satellite sites.
Brandi said he discussed the potential bid with Ski Areas of New York's board members, who felt the event's benefits would extend statewide.
"It allows us to look at this in a longer term view and utilize these games to entice public and private investment as well, because a whole plan has to be developed," McKenna said. "And I think the key is looking at the progression of events going there."
Paying for the trip
McKenna elaborated on the funding for the trip to Almaty, Kazakhstan, saying the trip flying out of Montreal will cost an estimated $1,500 per person. He said ROOST, ORDA and schools such as Clarkson University will pay for their representatives, and some individuals will pay their own way.
McKenna added that he felt it was important for this size group to attend this year's games to learn about the varying elements of hosting the games over a busy three-day span.
"It's important to get a large and diverse group involved in this because if we want to move it forward, it's much more than just one little village looking at these games," he said. "We have to engage the universities. We have to engage a lot of different organizations."