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Saddleback Mountain opened this morning at sunup, with a new quad chairlift and big plans for the future, after five years of empty slopes and lifts and decades of a rough economic trail.
New owner Arctaris Impact Fund acquired the 6,400-acre mountain resort on Jan. 31 and have since invested $18 million, including the addition of a $7 million Doppelmayr lift that's expected to double the amount of skiers on the mountain. Another $20 million in upgrades are planned over the next couple of years.
Saddleback's previous owners struggled for years to find an owner that could provide the cash infusion the Rangeley-area ski resort required to stay economically feasible.
"The word of the day is legacy," Uche Osuji, managing director of Arctaris Impact Investors, said at a ribbon-cutting Sunday. "The Saddleback legacy started in 1960. We are standing on the shoulders of the great people that have come before us. We would not be here today without their vision."
Today at 6:45 a.m., six trails were open for skiers, though high wind could close some lifts and trails, a news release from the resort said. Saddleback also this morning asked skiers to "treat your car as your lodge and pack your patience," because of COVID-19 restrictions.
The Sunday ribbon-cutting, which was limited in size because of COVID-19 concerns, was attended by Arctaris leadership, representatives of Maine’s congressional delegation, state and local government, mountain leadership and members of Saddleback’s advisory board.
Also at the ceremony Sunday were representatives of Doppelmayr USA, who presented Saddleback officials with the traditional bell to bless the new high-speed chair lift, which is a big part of the economic plan for the resort.
The quad lift replaced the 1960s-era Rangeley double lift, which took 11 minutes to get up the mountain and could carry 750 skiers an hour. The new quad lift gets up the mountain in four minutes and can carry 2,400 skiers an hour. The lift will allow the resort to increase the amount of skiers using the mountain from 100,000 to the nearly 200,000 that is needed to make the resort sustainable, Tom Federle, Arctaris counsel, told Mainebiz. He said Saddleback needs at least 180,000 to be economically viable.
Sunday River, in Newry, Maine's largest ski area by attendance, attracts 550,000 visitors a year, The second-largest, Sugarloaf, in Carrabassett Valley, attracts 400,000, according to the Mainebiz Book of Lists.
The owners continue to raise money to upgrade the mountain, not only the ski assets, but housing, a solar array that will eventually power the new lift, and also provide power for the enhanced snow-making that was installed on the mountain this fall.
Owners two weeks ago announced a new phase of fundraising, jumpstarted by a donor pledge of $1.3 million from New York City-based PARC Foundation. Arctaris is working with St. Paul, Minn.-based Venn Foundation to launch the fund, which will be used to create a Program-Related Investment, a philanthropic tool to provide below-market capital to projects that advance IRS-defined charitable purposes. In this case, it will be structured as an unsecured loan that is entirely forgivable based on reaching milestones that include opening a new lodge, and running the resort, ski school and race program each year for the next six years, Saddleback said earlier this month.
Saddleback said that the PARC Foundation was “inspired by the rapid progress on re-opening Saddleback Mountain with its much-anticipated, new high-speed detachable quad” chairlift.
In November, the Finance Authority of Maine approved state New Markets tax credit financing. The financing structure builds on the financing for the sale, which came from a variety of sources, including New Markets tax credits, a Maine Rural Development Association loan, a FAME loan and guarantee, and grants, foundations and community donations.
Besides the new lodge next to the new high-speed quad lift and the solar array, the new owners plan to improve the access road, add employee busing and customer shuttle service in and out of Rangeley, expand workforce housing on and off mountain, and add daycare options for the resort and the region's workforce.
Federle said in February plans also include partnerships with summer tourism businesses to provide year-round employment for Saddleback workers.
Owners are also exploring partnership opportunities to bring better cell service to the region, as well as become part of the effort to improve broadband access
The mountain, which is just east of Rangeley and located in four unorganized plantations, was an economic driver for the Rangeley area and Franklin County in the 50 years it was open. When it closed, the region took a hit. The new owners say they plan to focus on development of the region, as well as just the ski area.
“This is about more than opening a mountain,” Jonathan Tower, managing partner and co-founder of Arctaris Impact Fund, said earlier this month. “This is about restoring 200-plus jobs to the community; it’s about the regional economic impact of Saddleback; and it’s about the health and wellness benefits of an operational mountain."
The new lift the resort has caps decades of struggle for the mountain, not only the past five years, but for a generation.
When the Berry family, of Farmington, bought Saddleback in 2003, its previous owners had spent more than two decades working on expansion while also struggling with the National Park Service over land acquisition issues surrounding the Appalachian Trail. By the time then-owner Donald Breen reached a deal with the park service that would allow expansion, "the long battle with the government had consumed millions of dollars and nearly two decades of his life," according to New England Ski History online.
The Breen family announced that they would either sell the resort or close it after the 2002-03 season ended. The Berry family bought it out of "a wish to do something for an area that was struggling financially," Mark Berry told Mainebiz in February. In the 12 years the Berrys owned the ski resort, they invested more than $60 million in running, building and developing it.
The closed the resort in 2013, and several potential sales fell through before Arctaris closed on the sale in January.