Saddleback Reopens, But Can It Help Lift Western Maine's Economy?
Skiers are back on the slopes of Rangeley’s Saddleback Mountain this week, marking a new era in the resort’s rocky history. Its new owner, a Boston-based venture fund with a social mission, says its investments will help stem economic decline in western Maine. Many in the region are hoping for the best, but not necessarily counting on it.
Saddleback reopened Tuesday with much enthusiasm. But back in the fall, Saddleback’s new general manager, Andy Shepard, was scrambling to get the remote, 6,400-acre resort out of mothballs, five years after former owners Bill and Irene Berry shut it down.
The first order of business was to tear down an old and slow two-person lift and — with the aid of helicopters — replace it with a $7 million, high-speed “detachable-quad” model.
“The old lift would take 750 people an hour up the mountain. It took 11 minutes. Our new detach will take four minutes and it will take 2,400 people an hour up the mountain. So we feel like we’ve solved the getting-up-the-mountain challenge,” he says.
There have been many more challenges in getting the mountain up to speed, but Shepard brings some successful history to bear: he originated Aroostook County’s Winter Sports Center and its cross-country ski biathlons, and he helped to engineer the preservation of Rumford’s nonprofit Black Mountain ski area.
For Shepard, snow sports are a rural economic development tool. But with Saddleback he found a lot of problems beyond just slow lifts — a lodge whose kitchen, dining and bathroom capacity was too small and years of deferred maintenance.
“So solving for those problems on top of solving for the purchase of the mountain really was going to keep any traditional investor away from looking at Saddleback as a viable option. In fact the only people that expressed an interest turned out to be frauds and criminals,” he says, referring to an Australian company called Majella.
Sebastian Mansour was CEO of Majella, which in 2017 promised to buy the mountain and make it into a world-class, four-season resort. A year later Mansour was arrested in Australia on fraud charges, and his company’s plans for Maine dissolved.
“That had a devastating impact on the community,” Shepard says. “They were put through hell for years and it was just a tragedy to watch. Finding the right buyer was critical. Arctaris Impact Fund presented themselves as the perfect buyer.”
Arctaris is a Boston-based investment fund that says it tries to “do well while doing good.” Its $38 million plan for the mountain depends on a combination of old-fashioned bond and equity investors, state-backed loans, philanthropy and a $2.5 million refundable grant raised by the mountain’s passionate local supporters.
“This kind of fit our investment model,” says Arctaris co-founder Jonathan Tower.
Tower says the group likes to work in communities such as Rangeley, whose economic and social fabric have been damaged by the loss of a primary employer.
“Do we find something else so that this community can stay together, or is it kinder just to buy everyone a one-way bus ticket to Tucson and tell them how to sign up as Uber drivers?” he says. “Where Arctaris really likes to get involved is where we can make an investment that anchors the community and keeps the community together over the long term.”
Recent projects include a low-income worker housing development in rural Colorado, and a $40 million urban revitalization effort in Erie, Pennsylvania.
In Rangeley, Arctaris is looking to create more than 200 jobs, many at above-industry-standard pay. There are plans for on-site worker housing and child care, a year-round mid-mountain lodge and, eventually, year-round health benefits for all workers, whether seasonal or permanent. One goal is to attract young people to settle down in the area.
The prospects look good to recently hired workers Jenny Bush and Eli Martin as they headed up the hill on opening day, wearing in trademark green and black Saddleback ski coats.
“I’ve kind of always wanted to work at a ski mountain; it’s worked out perfectly,” Bush says.
But after the years of uncertainty, and the failure not only of Majella’s lofty promises but also of other suitors’ plans, some wariness remains among Saddleback’s fans. They note that the Barrys struggled in vain for years to make the mountain a dependable community resource. Can Arctaris really do better?
“I’m not sure yet. I truly am not sure yet. I am amazed and I love and I can’t thank them enough for diving into this and the things they have done for the mountain,” says Peter Stein, a founding member of the nonprofit Saddleback Mountain Foundation, which made its own unsuccessful effort to buy the resort.
Stein says a community-focused plan is the future of the ski industry.
“But this is a tough business. Here you are opening day and the cold gives you zero degrees and the winds are almost enough to shut down the lifts. That’s Saddleback,” he says.
But while the jury may be out, and while COVID-19 is introducing an entirely novel kind of complexity into all ski resort operations, at Saddleback the lifts are spinning and skiers are grinning.