It’s been one, long fortnight in Rangeley, Maine.
The “two-week” timeline had become something of a running joke among members of the rustic resort community, awaiting elusive word on the future of its beloved Saddleback Mountain. The Berry family, which had owned the ski area since 2003 and announced its intentions to sell in 2012, shuttered operations four years ago after failing to find financing for a new, quad chairlift.
And Saddleback sat quiet with little in the way of revelations for its clientele.
There was the whole Majella Group fiasco (CEO Sebastian Monsour was soon arrested in Australia for aged investor fraud) that delivered some promise for a period of time, but nothing concrete, despite the holdout of hope. It was a quiet aspiration, holding out in the dearth of news. Yet, nothing was ever imminent. Maybe, they said, in two weeks….
Now, it finally appears that the waiting period is over.
Saddleback Mountain is slated to reopen in 2020 after the Berry family reached an agreement with Arctaris Impact Fund of Boston to sell the resort. It’s a conversation that started a little more than a year ago, according to Andy Shepard, who will take a role as Saddleback’s new general manager, and had been quietly been working behind the scenes in an attempt to revive the mountain. Shepard was the founder of the nonprofit Maine Winter Sports Center (now the Outdoor Sports Institute), a group that initially aimed to use skiing as a model of developmental sustainability for communities in Maine.
“My interest started back in 2014 when the Berry family reached out to me,” Shepard said. “We had a history of buying failed ski areas and putting them back on their feet again. We looked at it, but we weren’t in any position to take on any risk at the time. We had, what I thought, were productive conversations with the Berry family, but we both realized that Maine Winter Sports Center wasn’t the right partner because we didn’t have capital.”
That forced Shepard and Portland lawyer Tom Federle to take a step back in trying to find a solution for the past five years.
It was about a year ago when they came across Arctaris, a firm in Chestnut Hill, Mass., which “manages a family of funds focused on investments in inner cities, targeted rural communities and opportunity zones throughout the United States.” Arctaris had also expressed an early interest, according to Shepard, but because the Rangeley region didn’t have opportunity zone status (zones are designed to spur economic development and job creation in distressed communities, according to the IRS), it didn’t work for its business model.
Now, the parties have joined together to strike a deal with a projecting closing on Dec. 23. The plan is to re-open the mountain sometime between Thanksgiving and Christmas 2020.
The reaction from Rangeley has been overwhelmingly positive, Shepard said.
“Rangeley is an absolutely beautiful, iconic New England resort community,” he said. “It has some of the most beautiful lakes, some of the best fly-fishing in the world, hiking, mountain biking, climbing, all sorts of things. Everything you could imagine to do there.
“The challenge is the wintertime economy. Snowmobiling has been an important part of the economy up there but if we were to have a bad winter, that would put that economy at risk.”.
When the mountain closed four years ago, so too did the opportunity for winter jobs. “That year-round opportunity disappeared, and so did a lot of those young families,” Shepard said. “I think people are really excited about having the third leg of the stool, if you would, put back into the economy and to see the year-round economic prospects for that region re-imagined.”
Shepard said that more of the group’s intentions for revitalizing Saddleback will be announced after closing, but he did say that the investments made in the ski area will be significant. Lifts will be replaced and improvements will be made to the base lodge and snowmaking. Four-season opportunities, including mountain-biking and a sugaring business will be introduced. There will also be an expansion of the trail system, and a push to make sure mountain opens as a top-flight resort.
“This is not going to be your grandfather’s Saddleback,” Shepard said. “We think that Rangeley and Saddleback represent a unique, recreational asset — certainly in the East — and one of the top ones, we think, in the country when you put it in proximity to all the lakes and all the summertime things that are going on, the quality of the village. There’s an awful lot to get excited about, and we want to make sure that the mountain reflects that excitement.”
Shepard said he is fascinated by the unique culture and following that has Saddleback has produced.
“There’s this Saddleback diaspora that is spread out all over the country,” he said. “People are passionate about their memories of their time at the mountain and have been heartbroken that they have lost the opportunity for their kids or grandkids to be part of that culture for the last four years. There’s definitely a sense of responsibly in understanding that passion and that sense of community and that, when we bring the mountain back, we do everything we can to build on that culture and lifestyle and make sure that its something that will be around for generations to come.
“This is going to be, legitimately, one of the top resorts in the East when we’re done.”
The wait is over.
Let the anticipation begin.