COMMUNITY CONNECTIONS: Mike Pratt begins seventh year as ORDA CEO
LAKE PLACID — Lake Placid News Editor Andy Flynn sat down with state Olympic Regional Development Authority President and CEO Mike Pratt on March 2 in his third-floor office of ORDA’s new administration building on Church Street. It was the day after Pratt began his seventh year at the helm.
Pratt has been for ORDA for more than 30 years, and he was the general manager of Gore Mountain for 21 years before taking his current job in the spring of 2017. A 1979 graduate of Lake Placid High School, he has deep roots in this village.
Now he’s in charge of an organization that manages a variety of properties throughout the state, from Whiteface Mountain ski center and the Whiteface Mountain Veterans Memorial Highway in Wilmington; to the Olympic Center, ORDA administration building, Olympic Speedskating Oval, Olympic Jumping Complex, and Mount Van Hoevenberg Sliding Center and Nordic Center in Lake Placid; to the Gore Mountain ski center in North Creek; and finally the Belleayre Mountain ski center in the Catskills.
Just as Pratt became the CEO, New York state began increasing its investments in ORDA facilities, budgeting extra funds for capital projects to “modernize” the venues and bring them back to international sporting standards. According to approved state budget bills from the New York Legislature, not including funds for maintenance or New York Works, ORDA received $28 million for capital projects in fiscal year 2018; $50 million in FY2019; $70 million in FY2020; $134 million in FY 2021; $92.5 million in FY2022; and $92.5 million in FY 2023.
Gov. Kathy Hochul has now proposed $80 million for ORDA’s capital projects in FY2024; that does not include $10 million for “critical” maintenance and energy efficiency upgrades, and $2.5 million from the state Office of Parks, Recreation and Historic Preservation budget as part of the New York Works initiative.
A marked increase in capital project funds from the state came after Lake Placid was named the host city for the FISU Winter World University Games, a announcement that was made in March 2018.
The Lake Placid News asked Pratt several questions about the state investment and what it’s meant for ORDA, Lake Placid and the community’s Olympic legacy. The interview was edited for clarity.
LPN: In March 2018, Lake Placid was officially named as the host city for the 2023 FISU games. Was that really when it turned around fiscally so you could actually make these improvements, or was it before then?
Pratt: It was before then. I became the president and CEO in March of 2017, and one of the first projects that I directed was to go through our master planning. All the venues’ staffs had done tremendous jobs taking care of old and antiquated facilities. And they had good visions of where they wanted to go, but we hadn’t gone through the exercise of the master planning and the permitting. We hadn’t gone through the SEQR (State Environmental Quality Review Act) processes. And those are very arduous, very methodical processes, and we successfully navigated those processes and received a lot of permits starting in 2018, which allowed us to modernize.
And certainly these FISU games were an important milestone and gave us a target for completing some of our projects and receiving the homologations from the sport governing bodies for those facilities. But the Olympic Authority has so many other facilities that weren’t utilized in the FISU games.
The Memorial Highway had nice new paving done, but the masonry buildings from the WPA project really hadn’t had any work done on them. We’ve been tackling a lot of masonry work, replacing windows and roofs and trying to do a lot of infrastructure work.
And with the FISU games, the bobsled, skeleton and luge combined track was not utilized, but we host World Cups every year.
And much of the Whiteface and Gore facilities weren’t utilized during the games, although some of their competitive courses were. Belleayre wasn’t at all. And all those facilities had a lot of modernization efforts that had to be tackled, too.
It’s been a very intense process to try to work through this global pandemic and try to identify supply chain issues, try to identify critical path items and manage the processes and projects so that we would be successful.
And one thing that I’m really proud of is, with every single facility that we’ve improved and we operate, we haven’t missed an operating season. There was a lot of inconvenience on the staff, and at times it made the project more difficult for us, but there are so many stakeholders and people that rely on these facilities and count on them year after year. We didn’t feel it was an option to just step away and say we’re going to close a facility for a year or two and try to modernize it. We worked real hard around our windows of opportunity and stayed organized and focused so that we could be successful.
LPN: We understand that not all the ORDA venues were used for the FISU games, but it seemed like FISU was the big flag to get people to say, “OK. This is the goal. We’re doing all this because of that.” It was something the public and even politicians in Albany could rally behind.
Pratt: It was a tremendous international event, a multi-sport event. It created some unique challenges. It also allowed us to embrace the regional approach to host in these events.
In 2019, the Lake Placid Olympic region received a LEED Gold community status, and it was regional because of the Olympic Authority’s efforts at Gore and Whiteface, so that enlarged the Olympic region.
And here in 2023 with these FISU games, reaching out and partnering with the villages of Potsdam and Canton and Saranac Lake, as well as North Creek, it made the largest Olympic region ever. This event, before the Ukraine war, had the potential to have twice as many athletes and twice as many events as the 1980 Olympics, and that’s why we had to have a bigger Olympic region.
LPN: The Lake Placid News has used the term “Olympic Legacy” in print for years. ORDA has really embraced it and almost built its brand around “Olympic Legacy.” What does that term mean to you?
Pratt: Well, to me, it’s a standard. Lake Placid, just like North Creek, are train station communities. We’ve been welcoming visitors for well over 100 years. And in Lake Placid, we’ve been hosting international sporting competitions for over 100 years. So the heritage is very powerful. It’s very important. And we considered it as we were modernizing our facilities.
Certainly we put in sophisticated and modern infrastructure but kind of steered away from a lot of smoke and mirrors and neon, bells and whistles. We wanted to just stay focused on appropriateness. And I think we’ve done that.
But the legacy is two-fold, too. It’s what the future holds. And that’s what having these homologated sporting facilities and the international sporting community having Lake Placid available and in demand is something that provides a powerful legacy for the future also.
LPN: What is ORDA’s role in Olympic legacy?
Pratt: We’re certainly a two-time host in Lake Placid. We’re the stewards, I think. The Olympic Authority accepts this responsibility. We’re proud of it, and we try to represent the community as well as we can.
LPN: What about Lake Placid’s role on the world stage as Olympic legacy? How do you see that?
Pratt: It’s powerful. It’s a multi-Olympic host, a two-time host. There’s certainly a select group of host cities that can say that. And I think the milestones of Lake Placid are so powerful, that what we accomplished in the Olympics of 1932 and 1980 became the standards for future Olympics, whether they were something as simple but as powerful as the tiered podium in 1932 or whether it was the successes of Eric Heiden and the “Miracle on Ice” hockey team in 1980 that allowed the Olympics to commercialize themselves and be brands that corporations and businesses wanted to be associated with.
LPN: A lot of people thought the FISU games were the end game. “OK, it’s over, it’s done.” I get the sense, though, it’s just the beginning. What do you think?
Pratt: We have so many prestigious and powerful events coming up. Just next weekend, we’re hosting the NCAA championships for Alpine and Nordic. We have the ECAC men’s hockey championships coming up in a couple weeks. And then at the end of this month, we’re hosting the World Championships for synchronized skating. We’ve got biathlon events coming back. In March 2025, we’re hosting the World Championships for bobsled and skeleton. Gore, with their freestyle competition facilities right now, the office officials and the United States ski team are stating that Gore is ready to host World Cups. It’s just trying to figure out again, what’s appropriate and how we move ourselves forward to take advantage of this opportunity that was presented to us by modernizing these facilities and having them ready.
LPN: I’ve heard, unofficially, that Mount Van Hoevenberg will host a World Cup for luge next season. Is that correct?
Pratt: Yeah, we’re expecting the World Cup luge to come back.
LPN: Are you trying to get another World Cup ski jumping event?
Pratt: The office people want to have that conversation with us again, and we’re excited about that. Again, it’s trying to figure out the appropriateness and scheduling of how to do it. Certainly it was a tremendous event, and I think the Olympic Authority staff just did a remarkable job of hosting the first World Cup ski jumping event in North America in 21 years.
Just like with the FISU games, the focus that we said we couldn’t miss on were the fields of play. We wanted our snow and ice to be perfect. We wanted results, timing and scoring to have no controversies. We wanted the broadcasting to work. And everything did. We worked very hard and stayed focused to make sure that those things — which were the reason why the sporting world came here — did not have an issue.
LPN: I heard that athletes, especially ski jumpers, they just love it and they want to come back. What have you heard?
Pratt: We’re not hearing anything but requests to host more and more events. It’s very flattering to be in demand. We just have to figure out our events calendar and make sure we can be as successful doing everything as we’re scheduling things. We want to make sure that we’re appropriate and prepared.
LPN: People say, “Well why close down Main Street during the FISU games?” The FISU games, was it worth having?
Pratt: Absolutely. I think it was great. It showed off Lake Placid. We had tremendous ratings on TV worldwide. We got a lot of exposure to the world of sport. And, as I said, the international sporting community wants to come here to Lake Placid. And there’s a lot of businesses that people don’t want to spend their money with. Nobody wants to pay their electric bill or do other things, but we’re in a fortunate position where people want to come to Lake Placid and pay that money. And there’s a lot of ways the economy benefits from all these events. We just have to make sure they’re managed well.
LPN: People are talking about Lake Placid hosting the Winter Youth Olympic Games. What have you heard?
Pratt: We’re just trying to stay focused on our events calendar, making sure that what we’re committing to is something that is appropriate and that we’re going to be successful with. And we’ve got a tremendous amount of high prestigious events. But these discussions have to have more people at the table than just me — the United States Olympic and Paralympic Committee as well as the different governing bodies of sport, and the community leaders. So there will be some good discussions I think in the future, but right now we’re focusing on the events that we’re able to operate and manage with our facilities.
LPN: Have you had discussions with the mayor about the Youth Olympics?
Pratt: Nothing serious, just when people bring it up.
LPN: You put in six full years as CEO so far. What do you see as your biggest accomplishments?
Pratt: I’ve been so fortunate in my career to be able to do things that very few people in the world get to do. With the Olympic Authority, managing the three Alpine ski areas and watch us modernize the infrastructure there as we continue to improve.
At Gore, we had quite a streak going of more lift days every year, the same amount of snow made every year, making it in less hours in every year and having it for less kilowatt hours every single year. These efficiency challenges and opportunities, our specifications for our infrastructure and the way we’ve rebuilt our facilities has been great.
And then these Olympic venues. The Olympic Center used to be the community destination before the 1980 Olympic remodels. The work for the 1980 games, the staff did a tremendous job of maintaining that stuff. It was really built for a two-week event. It wasn’t built for the next 42 years. And now with what we’ve done with modernizing the infrastructure, evicting the Olympic Authority staff, it has an opportunity to become a community destination again. The restaurant is there. The museum is modernized. And the facility is just tremendous. So I’m really proud of that.
I’m really proud of the way that these Olympic facilities are not four-month venues any more. They’re year-round. And having the national teams of bobsled, skeleton, biathlon and Nordic use these facilities all year round is just a great asset. And then to tie luge down again … right now they’re so excited to be here with the way the venues have improved. So I think having the year-round sporting presence from these national teams is something that I’m really proud of, also.
LPN: As you’ve been modernizing, we’ve seen a slow build-up of state funds. I think taxpayers were expecting that the capital project money would not stay at the level it’s been because everybody said officials said the state was doing it for the FISU games. The FISU games are over, and ORDA has been proposed to have another hefty amount for modernization. What would you tell a taxpayer who says, “Why do you still need so much money?”
Pratt: The return to New York state is immediate. Our economic impact is much greater than the appropriations we’re receiving. What we are doing is appropriate. It’s a lot of infrastructure work. It’s very efficient. We have a lot of stakeholders that are relying on us. And I think these investments have been solid. They are showing returns. And certainly we expect that this opportunity is going to slow down, but there’s still a little bit of work to do, and all of these facilities are state assets and need to be taken care of.
LPN: We’ve seen the big roll-outs of the venue improvements, Mount Van Hoevenberg, the Olympic Center, the Olympic Speedskating Oval. Are we going to see a roll-out of something else? What’s on the list?
Pratt: Certainly, we’re not counting our chickens before its hatched, but the ski industry has undergone a lot of consolidation over the years, and there’s only two lift companies and they’ve been at capacity for many years. So right now you have to order lifts ahead of time. Whether it’s the engineering you wait for or the lead time for parts and the construction and installation. But in order to be successful and not miss an operating season, these are multi-year projects now. Just commercial electrical equipment is close to a year’s lead time, so you can’t just wait until May and try to start a project and expect that you’re going to have it finished. …
LPN: What do you like the most about your job?
Pratt: Well, I love the facilities. The passion. The staff are tremendous. The stakeholders, their passion is just awing. Telling the stories, I love that, whether it’s the legacy or the heritage of the past and leading into the legacy of the future, turning these places into year-round facilities. I love it all.
LPN: What’s your favorite story to share about Lake Placid for people who have never been here before?
Pratt: I love the fact that we invented the tiered podium and a Lake Placid native was the first person to stand on top of it. I love the 1932 Rink being the first covered rink for the (Winter) Olympics. …
LPN: It sounds like, the bottom line is, there’s still a lot of work to be done.
Pratt: There is. We have facilities in the Catskills and in the southern Adirondacks, down in Wilmington and all through Lake Placid. And these Olympic venues hadn’t received any real improvements since the late 1970s when they were built, and the ski areas. We historically have just been addressing the bare minimum. When you tackle things, the codes have changed so dramatically. The engineering requirements for snow load holding and stuff like that have changed dramatically. It’s not as easy as just throwing a coat of paint on something.
LPN: Some people in Lake Placid wonder if we need these huge events, especially with traffic issues. What’s your take on balancing the community’s needs with bringing in people for economic development?
Pratt: Certainly the Olympic Authority is a great neighbor. We’ve got tremendous venues and facilities. The region has just amazing natural resources. But it’s the people that make it special, and the community of Lake Placid has been welcoming guests for well over 100 years and hosting international sporting competitions for over 100 years. There’s a lot of problems that Lake Placid has that many communities wish they had. We’re very lucky to have the assets that we have and be in demand and to have people desiring to come here and contribute to the economy and spend their money with us.
LPN: As a local guy, should we just get rid of some of these large-scale events or try to make it work?
Pratt: I think it’s all about managing the problems and trying to turn a catastrophe into an inconvenience. And a lot of it is by planning. A lot of it is by communication. If there’s any real catastrophic problems, I’m not aware of those. I think most of them are just short-time inconveniences, and the community certainly has to manage some of those better, and we’re trying to be a part of that also.