RANGELEY, Maine - Saddleback Mountain in Rangeley needs to raise $3 million by the end of the month in order to open for the winter ski season. That's the message today from the owners of the resort, who hope that a viable funding source will come forward and secure what many say is a critical anchor for the economy of western Maine.
In case you don't know what $3 million can buy, it's enough for a quad chair lift - which Saddleback general manager Chris Farmer says the resort needs ASAP to replace its 50-year-old Rangeley Double Chair. "Essentially, we are a victim of our own success, that we have a bottleneck of getting customers out of the base area to the other parts of the mountain."
The quad chair lift, says Farmer, would likely increase the number of skier visits by 15,000 to 20,000 a year and ensure the long term stability of Saddleback. And that tight two-week deadline is to allow enough time to ship and install the new chair lift before the first snow falls.
Farmer says Saddleback has spent the past couple of years trying to upgrade its chair lift and is talking with a few potential lenders. "We're not looking for a hand out, we're looking for a hand up."
"Well, ski resorts, they're certainly capital intensive," says Greg Sweetser. Sweetser is executive director of the Ski Maine Association. He says news of Saddleback's situation is disappointing, especially since it's one of four major ski resorts in the state that offer lodging.
"Being a destination area, they are very important because they attract skiers who are here more than just a day, and attract skiers from more than just the local community," Sweetser says.
It also employs more than 300 people in the winter and 25 year-round. The executive director of the Rangeley Chamber of Commerce, Karen O'Gulnick, says if Saddleback closes, it will have a serious impact on the region.
"Saddleback, for Rangeley, is critical, not only in terms of the tourism which brings, obviously, dollars and people to the town, and also to the employment landscape. I think it's the third largest employer in Franklin County."
Saddleback isn't the only Maine ski resort to put out a do-or-die call for financial support. Last year, Lost Valley Ski Area in Auburn announced it wouldn't open for the winter ski season because it didn't have the money to prepare its chair lifts. Co-owner Connie King says the call to action worked. Within a couple weeks, a group called Friends of Lost Valley formed and helped raise $27,000.
"The community stood by us, they jumped in right in, helped," King says. "The Friends of Lost Valley formed and they're still helping us to this day. So we really got the community support we needed to get open."
Chris Farmer of Saddleback says Bill and Irene Berry actually bought the ski area in 2003 after the previous owner announced he would close it due to financial struggles. "They felt it was an integral part of the Rangeley economy and they stepped up and made a significant financial investment in order to preserve the jobs in the area and make that happen."
Over the years, says Farmer, the Berrys have invested about $40 million into Saddleback. They built a new lodge, installed new chair lifts, added new trails, and expanded snowmaking. Now, he says, they're hoping someone will step forward to help them - whether it be an equity investor, a loan, or an outright purchase of the resort.