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Whitetail deal draws mixed reactions

April 09, 1999|By DON AINES

MERCERSBURG, Pa. - Mercersburg and its General Purpose Authority say a deal to purchase Whitetail Ski Resort and a golf course presents no risk to taxpayers, but some area residents expressed misgivings about the idea on Thursday.

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The authority will begin selling $42 million in tax-free revenue bonds today to buy the 550-acre ski area and the 287-acre golf course, according to borough attorney Thomas J. Finucane.

Settlement on the property is expected by April 29.

"Risky all the way around. ... Whitetail is floundering and everyone know it," said Cinda Clark of Cove Gap, Pa. She said the winters are too warm to support a ski resort.

"That may pull them out of the woods," Clark said when told the deal includes the golf course, which will open in 2001.

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"We will have a net operating profit this year and that's after paying off some past-due payables," Whitetail General Manager Don MacAskill said.

In the 1998-99 season there were 140,000 skiers at the resort, compared to about 100,000 during the warm 1997-98 season, he said.

MacAskill said 1997-98 was the only season the resort did not show a profit.

He and the 40 year-round staff members will become employees of the authority, along with about 800 seasonal workers.

The General Purpose Authority's chairman, the Rev. Michael Brendle, said the group also will hire an experienced superintendent for the golf course.

"I'm not sure I understand all the details, but it sounds like a good idea," said Henry A. Kittredge of 11 N. Main St.

Kittredge, owner of the Light and Shade Shop, said the ski resort is "one of the biggest assets we have in the whole area."

The bonds being sold to finance the sale are not guaranteed by the borough or authority, according to Finucane. The risk will be assumed by bondholders, a group of mutual fund companies.

Revenue from the resorts would pay the principal and interest on the 30-year bond issue with any excess revenues going to the authority, Brendle said Wednesday.

The authority could invest the money in education, recreation and economic development, he said.

"If we somehow go into default, they can force the sale of the facility," Finucane said about the bondholders.

Council President Robert Brindle said the council endorsed the authority plan with the idea of making the resort viable. "We'll make this sucker go," he said.

Brindle noted the community lost about 175 jobs a few years ago when a tannery in the borough closed down. He said the resorts will provide job opportunities to residents.

A public meeting will be held April 22 to explain the purchase. A location for the meeting had not been determined.

"I guess I'd have to say it's a win-win situation for the borough. I think the people who own the bonds have a problem," said Brent Smith of 14 Oregon St., the owner of B&J Sunoco in Mercersburg.

"Taxpayers don't get a break from Whitetail being here," said Faith Carbaugh of Shimpstown Road. A resident of Montgomery Township, she said her taxes have gone up, not down, since Whitetail opened in 1991.

Increased traffic from the resort has damaged the road along her home, she added.

While the authority is not subject to local taxes, Finucane said it will negotiate a payment in lieu of taxes to the Tuscarora School District, Franklin County and Montgomery Township. He said the payment of about $100,000 a year will be equal to what a private owner would pay in property taxes.

About $50,000 currently owed to the school district by Whitetail will be paid as part of the deal, Finucane said.

The authority is buying the properties from the Whitetail Resort Limited Partnership and the Whitetail Land Partnership. The majority owners are the Akiyama family of Japan, according to Whitetail Spokeswoman Rachel Nichols.

Franklin County Area Development Corp. Executive Director L. Michael Ross said at Thursday's press conference that the ski area cost about $30 million to build. The authority, however, is paying just $18.5 million for the ski area.

"You could not put this here for the price we're paying," Finucane said.

"It could eventually be a great benefit to the town financially," said Jim Smith of 14 E. Seminary St. The former borough councilman said the authority will have to create a first class resort to make the project work.

"If they don't do it right, I'd hate to hold those bonds," Smith said.

He said the resort and golf course must be first-class facilities to attract tourists and new residents.

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