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Critics have doubts about New York's huge winter sports tourism investment


New York state is betting big on winter sports and tourism. Officials are on track to spend a billion taxpayer dollars refurbishing public ski areas and sports venues that date back to the 1980 Winter Olympics. But as NPR's Brian Mann reports, some experts say it's a risky investment.

BRIAN MANN, BYLINE: Last winter New York Governor Kathy Hochul was master of ceremonies at a kind of mini Olympics in Lake Placid, a village in the Adirondack Mountains of roughly 2,300 people.


KATHY HOCHUL: Let the 2023 World University Games begin. Thank you.


MANN: Winter sports and tourism are big business in Lake Placid, a mainstay of the economy and local culture. And this was the biggest winter sport event in Lake Placid since the epic 1980 Olympics, when the U.S. hockey team toppled the Russians here.


UNIDENTIFIED SPORTSCASTER #1: Finally, the game's over.

UNIDENTIFIED SPORTSCASTER #2: Do you believe in miracles? Yes.

MANN: To prepare for this year's university games and boost upstate New York's winter tourism economy, New York state officials funneled more than $600 million into its state-run Olympic Sports Authority, which now employs more than 1,500 seasonal and full-time workers. The organization's CEO, Mike Pratt, says the money went to modernize state-run sports competition sites and ski mountains.

MIKE PRATT: There are unprecedented capital investments in our facilities - no question about it. We are a good investment.

MANN: But this new spending comes despite predictions climate change could make the region too warm for reliable snow and ice. And critics, including economist Andrew Zimbalist, say big public investments in sports projects like the ones around Lake Placid typically lose money.

ANDREW ZIMBALIST: When you put in a half a billion dollars into renovating what they're calling heritage Olympic venues, you're making an investment without the good part of the investment ever have a chance to pay off.

MANN: Zimbalist is an expert on public funding for sports megaprojects at Smith College. He says cities that host Winter Olympics often tear down sports venues after the games are over because they're too expensive to maintain.

ZIMBALIST: In the case of Lake Placid, where you're not getting the Winter Olympics that attracts those tourists and attracts that attention, it becomes even more problematic to make an economic argument in favor of it.

MANN: State officials say New York's story will be different, and last winter's university games with hundreds of college athletes competing in Lake Placid were supposed to be a kind of proof of concept that these investments will pay off. It didn't turn out that way. The event had some amazing competition, but crowds were thin. And there were low ticket sales. Marc Galvin is a Lake Placid Village official and business owner.

MARC GALVIN: People thought it was going to be like the 1980 games, where there were droves of people in the streets. And there was definitely some loud voices saying, you know, where is everybody?

MANN: State officials told NPR they were disappointed with the crowds and blamed missteps marketing the games, but they said they're convinced these investments are paying off and will attract tourists and sustain jobs for decades to come. But economist Andrew Zimbalist says keeping the authority's operations going is certain to require even more taxpayer dollars.

ZIMBALIST: It's not just $550 million. Beyond that, it will be the maintenance and updating that will go on for decades and decades.

MANN: NPR asked the Olympic Authority's Mike Pratt how much he believes Lake Placid's sports and tourism sites will eventually cost taxpayers.

PRATT: It's beyond the scope of what I know. It takes time, and it's been hard to budget.

MANN: For now, the Olympic authorities' reliance on taxpayers is still growing. In May, the organization's board voted to boost their funding requests again, with state officials now saying they'll need roughly $120 million each year from New York's legislature at least through 2027. Brian Mann, NPR News, Lake Placid, N.Y.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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Brian Mann is NPR's first national addiction correspondent. He also covers breaking news in the U.S. and around the world.