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Business and Economy

Saddleback Ski Resort Could Become Community-Owned Nonprofit

Susan Sharon
Maine Public
Saddleback in Dec. 2015.

A coalition of nonprofits, business owners and ski lovers is pushing to create a community cooperative to buy and reopen the shuttered Saddleback ski area. But there may be some other potential buyers on the horizon.

The energized coalition turned out for a Portland press conference announcing that after months of mystery about the resort’s future, a verbal deal had been struck that could get it back on track. The president of the newly minted Saddleback Mountain Foundation, Peter Stein, says the group will pay a total of $6 million, plus royalties, for the shuttered resort.

If all goes well, it will then become a community-owned nonprofit, along the lines of Vermont’s Mad River Glen.

The foundation needs to quickly come up with $4 million in donations to secure the deal with the current owners, Irene and Bill Berry, and cover other early expenses.

“Also, opening in any fashion for the 2016-2017 season depends on how much we can raise and how fast. The good news is, it’s looking like a really snowy season,” Stein says.

In a separate but related deal, two conservation groups, the New England Forestry Foundation and the Trust For Public Land, will buy 3,300 acres north of the resort, some of it bordering Saddleback Lake, to conserve forest ecosystems, but also for sustainable forestry and some public uses, which could include snowmobiling.

Stein and others say that by slicing those conservation lands from the total 8,000-acre Berry parcel, the Berrys get some financial breathing room in their consideration of how to responsibly unload the 723-acre ski resort, as well as another 2,200 adjoining acres that are zoned to allow development.

Wolfe Tone, the Trust for Public Land’s Maine director. says he struck a verbal deal with the Berrys this week.

“We could help make the terms of a ski area purchase work for a community-centered conservation and economic development model. I’m here today to tell you that the Trust for Public Land is not in a position to buy the ski area. That’s not the plan. But we and our conservation partner, the New England Forestry Foundation, could well be one half of the solution,” he says.

Sources with knowledge of the negotiations say that there are three potential contenders to provide the other half of the solution. The Berrys could not be reached for comment and, for now, the only potential buyer seeking the public eye is the group put together by Stein, an entrepreneur and president of an audio-tech company known as Scientific Solutions.

In addition to $6 million to cover the cost of buying the resort — including an owner-financed note of $3.8 million, Stein says the foundation will need nearly $2 million more to cover operating expenses.

And, according to the nonprofit’s web site, over time it would seek a total of $25 million, which would allow it to purchase land that horseshoes the resort.

“Some ask what is driving this initiative, what is motivating this team to devote so much time. It is because we care deeply about the mountain, the Rangeley region and the state of Maine. And we know, we know, that Saddleback ending up as a community-owned resort would be a far better outcome than it being owned by those seeking financial gain. In our effort all financial gains go back into the mountain for the public good,” Stein says. “This initiative gives this gem of a mountain back to its loyal skiers and the greater Rangeley community and the state of Maine forever.”

The Berrys closed the resort last year, saying they couldn’t finance installation of a new chairlift they believed was necessary to make the resort’s economics work. With 80-100,000 skier visits a year, it was a big blow for the Rangely area’s economy.

When one reporter asked whether supporters were worried that it might be too late to revive the resort, that skiers may have moved on to other hills, the crowd had a unified negative response.

“I don’t need to answer the question, do I?” Stein says.