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UP CLOSE: Kelly Cummings takes the helm on ORDA board

Kelly Cummings (Photo provided)

LAKE PLACID — Gov. Andrew Cuomo’s choice for the new state Olympic Regional Development Authority Board of Directors chairperson has proximity to her advantage. She’s close to the governor and close to the Adirondack Park, where the authority is based.

Kelly Cummings began her tenure on the ORDA Board Friday, Aug. 7 during the monthly meeting at the Olympic Center. She is one of five new members on the 12-member board.

“I’m just thrilled and honored to be in this position as chair of ORDA,” she told the News in an exclusive phone interview Monday, Aug. 10. And she’s taken up the part as one of ORDA’s chief promoters. “Please, everyone, it might be a little bit scary if you don’t like heights, come to the ski jumping mountain. The zip lines are open, and they are a blast.”

Cummings has worked with ORDA for the past four years as part of Cuomo’s cabinet, first as the governor’s deputy chief of staff and senior advisor starting in July 2016 and now as his director of state operations and infrastructure, starting in January 2019.

“Which means that all of 73 state agencies, authorities and commissions fall under my department,” Cummings said. “So I spend a lot of my days working with commissioners of every agency, whether it’s DMV or the Department of Health or the Labor Department and Metropolitan Transportation Authority, all of them. So it’s a very diverse job, a lot of management, a lot of coordinating state activities.”

Cummings brings experience to the table at a time when ORDA is going through a massive amount of capital projects, in what she calls a $147 million “modernization.” This venue “Renaissance” — a term she used during the Aug. 7 meeting — includes construction and renovation at all the ORDA-operated venues: the Belleayre, Gore and Whiteface ski centers, Olympic Jumping Complex, Olympic Center, Olympic Speedskating Oval and Olympic Sports Complex at Mount Van Hoevenberg.

“I’ve been very fortunate to have an exciting job project managing basically every major building project in the state: bridges, airports, roadways, train stations,” she said.

Prior to working for the governor, Cummings had 20 years of experience as a communications director for the Republicans in the state Legislature.

“So I was the person who talked to the press and was the spokesperson for the New York State Senate majority leader. I also spent some time in the Assembly,” she said.

As far as the Adirondacks are concerned, Cummings calls herself an avid skier, traveling from her home outside Albany to spend time at Whiteface Mountain in Wilmington and Gore Mountain in North Creek. And she’s proud of spending most of her life visiting the mountains.

“I was a figure skater growing up, so I would train and compete up here in the North Country and Lake Placid,” she said. “I went to the Olympics in 1980 with my family and even the 1972 World University Games. My parents were huge winter sports enthusiasts, and they sort of instilled that upon me.”

Cummings will have a connection to both the FISU Winter World University Games that were held in North America. Lake Placid will host the games again in 2023.

“One of my main priorities as chair of ORDA is really getting all of our facilities, our venues, ready for the World University Games in January 2023,” she said.

As for her appointment on the ORDA Board, Cummings said she didn’t lobby for the job, although she had privately hoped to one day lead the authority.

“I did not have a conversation with him,” she said. “He came to me. He was aware of my efforts. He was also very well aware of the many times he’s had to call me (when) we’ve had conversations over the weekends, and I had been at Whiteface or Gore skiing or somewhere in Lake Placid. And he’s a big fan, of course, of Saranac Lake and this entire North Country region. So he actually presented it to me, and quite frankly, it’s probably been a dream for the last 20 years to be the chair of ORDA.”

ORDA has struggled in the past to bring in more revenue than it spends on operations, and it’s become even more difficult during the coronavirus pandemic, especially since the venues were closed for several months in the spring and early summer and most are only open now with limited capacity. Although many visitors know the venues are up and running during the winter — since most were used during the 1980 Olympic Winter Games — the goal of ORDA has been to create more four-season programs, events and attractions to increase revenue during the summer and shoulder seasons of fall and spring.

“I think if you build it, they will come,” Cummings said. “I think one of the important things is we’re really focused on more year-round activities, and I think we need to continue to add those to our list of venues. I’m thinking particularly of the new zip lines at the jumping complex. We’re going to be opening the new mountain coaster at Van Hoevenberg.”

ORDA employees took advantage of the down time this spring to make improvements.

“ORDA used the time during COVID when things were shut down to really enhance our systems, using more technology, more ecommerce platforms, providing direct-to-lift access to the mountains,” Cummings said. “We sort of really improved a lot of our technology: smart reservation systems and touch-less points of purchase.”

Cummings sees attracting more visitors to the ORDA venues as a priority, and that would be achieved through additional marketing efforts.

“I want to cast a wider net, make more people aware of our facilities up here,” she said. “We’re doing a wholesale rebuilding, complete modernization, of the ORDA facilities currently and I want people to be aware of that.”

ORDA’s operations won’t reach pre-COVID levels anytime soon. We’re still in the middle of the pandemic, and large events and gatherings are still not allowed by the state. That means all the events at ORDA venues have been canceled through the rest of the year.

Come January, however, Cummings hopes that the state will have health protocols in place to keep spectators safe during special events, including the bobsled and skeleton World Championships in February and the ECAC hockey finals in March.

“When they do come, we need to make sure we have everything in place to keep people as safe as possible,” she said. “We’re going to have to be smarter. We’re going to have to be social distancing people. We’re certainly going to have to look at, like we are right now, 50% capacity. But again, luckily we have a lot of our activities, which do keep people safer.”

As far as getting back to the mountains — deep in the forest — Cummings said she hopes to eventually follow in the footsteps of her husband and two grown children, both in their 20s. They are all Adirondack 46ers.

“It is on my bucket list,” she said. “I just need to find a little bit more time, and I’d like to do it before time runs out, too, because it doesn’t get any easier with age.”

Listen to a portion of this interview on the “We are Lake Placid” podcast: https://www.lakeplacidnews.com/news/local-news/2020/08/14/we-are-lake-placid-podcast-kelly-cummings-orda-board-chairperson/.