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Significant upgrades to Saddleback Mountain, the ski resort in Rangeley, remain on track despite the pandemic.
And a Saddleback-led task force has been established to reinforce Rangeley and surrounding towns as year-round communities, with a focus on workforce attraction and retention.
Boston-based Arctaris Impact Fund LP bought Saddleback in January, paying $6.5 million for its 6,400 acres, including the ski trails and buildings.
Arctaris subsequently launched a multiyear $38 million upgrade of the resort, which is Maine’s third-largest ski area. The resort has been closed since 2015.
Upgrades include a high-speed detachable quad chairlift, redesign of the lodge, expansion of the snowmaking system and the addition of mountain bike and fat bike trails.
There are plans to hire more than 200 full- and part-time employees
“In the past there have been a number of challenges that kept the mountain from being profitable,” the resort’s general manager, Andy Shepard, told Mainebiz. “It has a long history of financial underperformance.”
Shepard and his team identified upgrades to reverse that course.
“One of the biggest problems was that our uphill capacity was insufficient,” he said. “Our lifts were old, slow and unreliable."
The primary lift, a Rangeley double chairlift, has an uphill capacity of 750 skiers per hour and the ride takes 11 minutes.
“Everybody always loved Saddleback,” he said. “It’s been an iconic mountain for a long time. But getting up the hill was a challenge. Our first priority was to change that.”
The Rangeley and its supporting towers were removed in April. Its replacement is a Doppelmayr high-speed detachable quad lift that can take 2,400 skiers per hour up the mountain; the ride takes four minutes, cutting seven minutes off the Rangeley's time.
The Doppelmayr is expected to arrive in early June. It’s expected that installation will be completed by Nov. 15.
The team also has upgrades underway on the resort’s post-and-beam lodge.
“We love the lodge,” said Shepard. “It’s a terrific example of western Maine mountain architecture.”
Improvements include expanded seating capacity on the third floor. That means construction of flooring over open spaces that previously looked down on the second floor. That has the added benefit of allowing people to get closer to windows that overlook the mountain.
It’s expected that capacity will increase from 126 seats to about 400.
Other upgrades included expansion of the third-floor kitchen, an existing bar and bathrooms, and addition of a pizza station and another bar. The work will also address deferred maintenance, including a new roof and siding, he said.
Matt Ahlberg, a partner at the Portland design/build firm Barrett Made, is the architect. Ahlberg and his partner, Rob Barrett, are taking on the lodge project. The majority of subcontractors are local, said Shepard.
Safety protocols have been implemented at the construction site, he added.
Overall investment during the first year of ownership is expected to be about $20 million, which includes the $6.5 million purchase price, investment in the new lift of $7 million, lodge upgrades of over $1 million, plus staffing and marketing.
Saddleback hired Montreal-based marketing firm Origin to develop the brand, creative assets and launch strategy.
Further work this year includes drafting a master plan of Saddleback’s existing trail system with an eye to constructing additional trails, possibly in 2021, according to Shepard.
“We want to add to the growing critical mass of world-class trails in the region,” he said, citing as examples the western components of the statewide Maine Huts & Trails system and development of a mountain bike park at Sugarloaf.
To leverage its year-round trail offerings, Saddleback will offer bike rentals.
“This part of western Maine can easily become an epicenter for that kind of activity,” he said.
The plan is to open between Thanksgiving and Christmas, Shepard said. However, he and his team continue to review opening plans given the dynamic situation presented by the pandemic.
“We’re playing close attention to what’s going on,” he said. “Our focus will be on two things: that we can provide a safe environment for our guests and that we can provide a safe environment for our staff.”
Job openings will likely be posted in July, with interviews to start in August and onboarding in September. The company is prepared for the likelihood that interviews will have to be conducted remotely, he added.
“Saddleback is unique in an important way: We’re the only ski area in North America that’s owned by an impact fund,” he added. “That means our mission is more than just to open the ski area and do so in a sustainable way. Our mission is to do so in a way that helps solve for the community and economic development challenges of the region.”
That mission reflects Arctaris’s interest in the ski area in the first place.
“Western Maine had significant challenges when the mountain closed five years ago,” he continued. “This region of the country is heavily dependent on seasonal workers. When the mountain closed, a critical infrastructure to support wintertime employment disappeared and, with it, a significant portion of the population that needed those wintertime wages to make their year-round employment situation work.”
Arctaris seeks to create an environment that attracts workers back to the region, he said.
Central to that, he said, is providing affordable housing, quality affordable day care and health benefits.
“One of the critical components is to provide year-round benefits for seasonal employees."
Shepard created a task force to address those challenges. One idea being explored now, he said, is a partnership with nonprofits. The nonprofits would create entities that hire people as year-round workers and serve as the vehicle that provides year-round wages and benefits.
Employers like Saddleback would provide the work.
“The idea is that employees would come to Saddleback and we’d give them a commitment for, say, six months,” he explained. “Then they would go to another employer in the region and get a commitment for, say, four months. And another employer would give them a commitment of two months.”
Each employer would pay its share of the wage and benefits package to the nonprofit hiring entity, which would compensate the employees.
The task force is also looking into partnering with state and federal agencies on the plan.
“If we can pull it off, it will make this part of western Maine a destination for young people,” he said. “There will be added enrollment in the school system. We can get more health services, get a pharmacy back into the community, all the things that are necessary to grow a vibrant community.”
Ideas around affordable housing are in the early stage, he said.
“We’re not sure what that looks like yet,” he said. “We’re having conversations at the state and local level.”