ldquo With no money and no staff rdquo 151 no Empire State Games

A day after learning there will be no state funding for the Empire State Games in 2011, those involved in both the summer and winter Olympic-style competitions are scrambling to salvage what they can.

No public announcements were made about the cancellation by the state’s Office of Parks, Recreation and Historic Preservation, which coordinates the games.

Darwin Roosa, who lives in Altamont and is president of the New York State Ski Racing Association – Nordic, said he found out about the canceled games on Tuesday when he received an e-mail from Lisa Del Signore, Empire State Games administrator.

“We have been informed that there will be no appropriation for any of the Empire State Games programs in the coming year, and two of our five staff members have been laid off effective the end of the year,” wrote Del Signore. “With no money and no staff, we have no program.”

Del Signore did not return calls from The Enterprise yesterday and the websites maintained for the Empire State Games were suddenly inaccessible. Gina Notaro at the state’s Office of Parks and Recreation, would say only, “We have been told to refer all press calls to the Division of the Budget.”

Erik Kriss, the spokesman for the Division of the Budget, sent out a release yesterday evening with two quotes from Governor David Paterson in response to two questions asked during his visit with the New York delegation in Washington, D.C.

Asked for his reaction to the cancellation of the games, Paterson said, “It’s sad. We had to do this two years ago and it’s sad that we’re going to have to do this now. When you get to this deep a level of cutting, where we’re now laying off workers, and where we’re now cutting into the 43rd and 44th billion dollar of reductions that we started making when I became Governor, you’re going to unfortunately see some very needed services and activities go by the boards.”

Asked if he would reverse the cancellation, Paterson said, “No, I won’t be able to reverse that. Obviously, if revenues come in, the next Governor could make a decision about the summer games, but I wouldn’t expect that there’d be a reversal.”

When The Enterprise asked Kriss how much the summer games cost the state and how much the winter games cost, he said, “All we’re going to release is the governor’s statement…At least it’s confirmation from the highest source in state government.”

Kriss called back to say that the games in 2011 were not going to cost the state anything. “One-time funding in 2010 was to be replaced by private fund-raising,” he said.

The only savings would come from lay-offs of those working on the games; the state would save the cost of salaries and benefits for those workers.

Asked how much that would save, Kriss said he couldn’t quantify it.

Asked if Del Signore’s statement was correct, that two of five staff members had been cut and the other three re-assigned, Kriss said, “Nothing is final; people have bumping rights based on seniority under contracts.”

The timing of the decision was based on the Dec. 10 deadline for final layoff notices to state workers, Kriss said.

“We haven’t done statewide layoffs like this in a long time and we wish we didn’t have to,” said Kriss. “We have to save $250 million in the state workforce, and we only got half-way with early retirement….The governor appealed to the unions and got a ‘no’ on lag pay and was beaten in court on furloughs.

“All he could do without their consent was lay-offs. It’s a last resort,” he concluded, “but that’s all we’ve got.”

Summer games

The summer games were to be held in Rochester next July.

“We just learned yesterday that the games were canceled,” said Noah Lebowitz on Wednesday; he is the spokesman for Monroe County, where Rochester is located.

The summer games started in 1978 and ran for 31 summers in a row, in various locations throughout New York, through 2008, when the state’s fiscal crisis led to their cancellation in 2009.

The games in 2009 were to have been held in the Hudson Valley. The local organizing committee rejected a pay-to-play proposal. The chairman of the committee, Steven Lant, wrote then to the commissioner for Parks and Recreation, “We arrived at this regrettable decision based on the overwhelming feeling that the participation fee violates the spirit of the Games and that objections to this approach are so strong among our host site partners, sponsors and volunteers that maintaining the support necessary to successfully host the Games has become untenable.”

After petitioning and public outcry, state funding was restored for the summer games this year, and they were held in Buffalo. The games were last held in Rochester in 2006.

“We were expecting the state would provide $1.2 to $1.3 million for the games,” said Lebowitz. That left $200,000 to be raised locally, he said.

Monroe County Executive Maggie Brooks held a press conference yesterday, in which she expressed disappointment over the cancellation and said the games were a great source of local pride as well as having a substantial positive impact on the local economy.

Brooks said she would meet with the local organizing committee to see if the county could secure private funding and corporate sponsorship to move forward with the games.

“In order to make up the state shortfall,” Lebowitz told The Enterprise “we would have to raise at least a million dollars.”

The current Monroe County budget, he said, is about $1.1 billion. “We had to close a $46 million shortfall,” he said. “The county doesn’t have a million dollars sitting around.” And, at this point, he said, Monroe County doesn’t know if corporate sponsors for the games “even exist.”

Winter games

The winter games, which started several years after the summer games began, have been hosted every year without a missed competition in Lake Placid, which has Olympic facilities.

Roosa said yesterday that his organization will look into holding a statewide Nordic competition at the same place — Mt. Van Hoevenberg, the Nordic center near Lake Placid — and on the same dates — Feb. 25 to 27 — for which the Empire State Games had been scheduled.

“We had no idea until yesterday,” Roosa said on Wednesday of the cancellation. “We were very surprised and extremely disappointed.”

He also said, “We understand it is because of the worsening fiscal crisis that New York is facing.”

The New York State Ski Racing Association – Nordic, Inc. has about 900 members, he said, both males and females, and of all different ages. The group would like to host competition in cross-country skiing, ski-orienteering, and biathlon at Mt. Van Hoevenberg in scholastic, open, and masters divisions, just as in the Empire State Games.

Roosa said, since this is just a part of what the Empire Games offered, it would not cost as much. The state had to pay for ice time for skaters, arena time for the opening ceremonies, and for downhill skiing at Whiteface, he said.

“We’re strictly Nordic,” Roosa said of his organization.

Roosa, who is 60, has competed every year — 27 times — since the winter games began, he said. He has won many, many medals in biathlon, which combines cross-country racing with target shooting.

“I speak for hundreds and hundreds of athletes when I tell you how important the games are,” he said. “Boys and girls learn how to set goals and train to reach them. Many of them don’t have programs at their schools but they compete on their own.”

Roosa also praised the “Olympic-style atmosphere” of the Empire State Games. “Families love it,” he said.

He went on about sports like cross-country skiing, “Kids often stick with it. It’s one of those life sports.”

Additionally, he pointed out that many New York State athletes who have competed in the Empire State games have gone to make national teams and to compete in the Olympics.

He concluded, “It’s not the lure of the medals that’s important. It’s the challenge and learning to meet the challenge. The whole season leads us to the Empire State Games. The games are a finale.”

Roosa is now taking up a new challenge. He plans to write letters and help lobby to reinstate the games.

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