Frustration finally turned into hope last fall in Rangeley, Maine, when Arctaris Impact Fund, a Boston-based impact investment firm, purchased Saddleback Mountain, the town’s primary source of employment, and one that had been dormant for a half-decade.
One year later, Saddleback is preparing to open for the first time in five years, generating a wealth of excitement and opportunity in the Rangeley area. New England Ski Journal caught up with the ski area’s general manager, Andy Shepard, as Maine prepares for a new dawn at Saddleback this winter.
New England Ski Journal: It’s now been almost a year since Arctaris Impact Fund purchased the mountain. How excited are you to finally turn this dream into a realty when you open this winter?
Andy Shepard: I’ve been involved in trying to get Saddleback opened for a long time, a little over five years now. I’m in the middle of the process right now with all the challenges still ahead of us, but I would say it’s been an enormous amount of relief and gratitude.
NESJ: It’s going to be a strange ski season across New England in the midst of the pandemic. Has Saddleback made any plans for what skiers and riders can expect as far as limitations and safety procedures are concerned?
Shepard: We’re doing planning every day. The closer we get to opening — December 15 — obviously the more dialed in those plans will become. But there’s still an awful lot of data that has to be accumulated. We’re waiting for the governor to announce what the policies will be around alpine skiing. We’re still gathering science. We’re working with one of the state’s top epidemiologists, we’re looking at industries outside of the ski industry, and accumulating all sorts of details that are going to go into our plan. I would say that we’re making good progress, but there’s still an awful lot of ground to cover.
I tend to approach these things from a more-processed standpoint. No matter what we’re doing there’s always going to be challenges in front of us. This is just a different challenge. The advantage at Saddleback is when you look at what’s happening right now in the outdoor industry, there is an overwhelming amount of interest on the part of people to get outside. That’s driven by a large degree, I think, by people feeling they will be safe in a natural environment. I think there’s also this acknowledgement that being in the outdoors, being in nature, has a calming effect on people. I’ve always bought in to that theory. When has there been a better time for people to be surrounded by an environment that calms them than now?
Fly-fishing, canoeing, kayaking, hiking, biking, all those sports are exploding in interest. When we get to the winter, people are not going to become less interested in being outside. They’re still going to need and want to be outside. There really is no other industry that’s prepared to support people in the outside than alpine skiing. I look at the fact that people are not going to be getting on planes to travel out west and travel to Europe like they typically would. So, we have a lot more skiers who are going to be staying in our neighborhood looking for places to ski. That certainly is going to benefit a place like Saddleback. And then on top of that, the investments we’re making — new high-speed detachable quad, a lot more capacity on our trails, and then, more importantly probably, the work that we’re doing in our lodge — a new HVAC system that promises to create a much safer environment inside — which very few other ski areas are investing in this summer, is going to make Saddleback one of the safest ski areas in the East. We’re dedicating a lot of time and energy into the design of our bathrooms, which is another point of hygiene that we’re paying very close attention to. Is COVID going to be a challenge? Absolutely. But I also feel like Saddleback is better prepared than most other ski areas to take advantage of that.
NESJ: Did the pandemic force you to slow, or abandon, any projects that you had initially planned prior to the reopening?
Shepard: No, in fact, it’s actually accelerated some of our investments, certainly around lodge redesign.
NESJ: What has the reaction been like within the Rangeley community, which now has, finally, concrete hope that the ski area is going to reopen?
Shepard: As you would imagine, overwhelmingly positive. When the mountain closed down five years ago, it was a rapid decline in house values and tax base. There was a migration of families who depended on the winter employment at Saddleback, and the community struggled for a while. But Rangeley is a remarkable and resilient community. They, like most western Maine communities, have chosen to invest in their future. Some incredible new restaurants have opened that required significant investment, and those investments were made before anybody even had an inkling that Saddleback was going to open again. That said, what Saddleback will do is it will stabilize the economy, it will bring a lot more working people into the community that will make it a lot easier for the businesses in the community to grow. We look forward to being part of that.
We’re owned by an impact fund, and that makes us unique in North America. So, our responsibility is not only to identify strategies and investments that will change the financial trajectory, historically, of Saddleback, but to do so in a way that solves for some of the community imbalances that the Rangeley community is feeling as well. We put together a task force that is working on being able to offer seasonal workers year-round benefits. So, one of the things I want people to understand about Saddleback is that, yes, we are a ski area. But we are a ski area that is absolutely committed to and dedicated to making a difference in the community. We can’t wait to dive in and start to make that happen.
NESJ: So, wasn’t this kind of the perfect marriage then, based on Arctaris’ mission and what Rangeley needed after all those suitors came and went?
Shepard: Arctaris is, really, not only the perfect fit, they were the only fit. A traditional investor, when you think about the amount of money it was going to take to not only overcome five years of deferred maintenance, but also invest in those things that were needed to make the ski area work … there’s an enormous investment involved in that, but the risk associated with that was such that it really kept any of the traditional investors from having any interest from moving forward. An impact fund can invest in economically distressed communities and, in Arctaris’ case, primarily communities that have lost their key employer. Saddleback was a perfect storm for opportunity for Arctaris and the Rangeley community. My hope is that other impact funds will look at how this is working, will see the opportunity to invest in rural communities and those economic engines in those rural communities, which in a lot of cases in New England are ski areas. That could very well be the genesis for a new renaissance for ski areas.
NESJ: When you installed the towers for the new high-speed detachable quad chairlift in August, was that sort of a statement that this was really, really going to happen this time?
Shepard: So, we weren’t intentional of that, but it certainly became that. I think because of all the stops and starts that have been associated with trying to get Saddleback open again, people who had fraudulent intentions coming in and raising the hopes of people in the community, I don’t blame the people of Rangeley and the Saddleback family for being skeptical. But they have seen the progress we’re making at the mountain. They have slowly started to come around to believe that this was probably going to happen. But when the towers went in, two of our parking lots were full. There were probably 3-to-400 people who came out and sat out around our deck and all over the mountain to watch this. It became a celebration of the realization that it is going to happen. That’s a responsibility that Arctaris and we take very seriously.
NESJ: With other larger resorts in the area already announcing that they’re going to require reservations in order to ski or ride, what does that mean for smaller ski areas like Saddleback? Will it be good for business, seeing skiers turn to you? And in turn, will an increase in guests create a problem in a world of social distancing?
Shepard: I think every ski area is going to face social distancing, but we see ourselves, certainly the skiing community sees us, as peers with Sunday River and Sugarloaf. We have the capacity and we have the experience to compete with those areas and I believe we do favorably. The progress we’re making in season pass sales is demonstrating that as well. COVID is definitely going to challenge every ski area, some of which are going to be prepared to deal with this, some of which will be more challenged by this. The work we’re doing in the lodge, we’ve doubled our seating capacity for dining, we’ve dramatically increased the air exchange capability, we have plans to be able to turn over our dining facility four or five times a day.
We’re pretty confident that we’re going to be able to safely process enough people to make the Saddleback experience meaningful. But we also really want everybody to understand that it’s going to be a one-year challenge that we have to get through. We’re going to ask our Saddleback family to help us get through this safely. Everyone is going to have to wear a mask. We want people to understand the science behind that, how important it is to keep each other safe, and we’re asking everybody to join in to commit to making not only Saddleback but every other ski area in the East held to the same principles.
NESJ: What do your days look like now as you prepare for the final push?
Shepard: It’s hard to imagine that there are actually days. That would suggest some stops in between. We all are exited and feel privileged to be a part of getting Saddleback open again, and we’re taking that very seriously. Everyone is working very hard. In my 40-plus years in business and nonprofit and back to business again, I would say I’ve never been more proud of a group than I am of the Saddleback team. They are a team of selfless individuals who are smart and committed to getting this done right.
NESJ: What area of the mountain are you most looking forward to revisiting this winter?
Shepard: I’ve been hiking all over during the summer and spring with my wife. We’ve explored most of the trails up and down. I know it’s going to ski a lot different than it hikes, but I can’t wait to get on it and try them all. Although, Muleskinner might be one that I save for a powder day.