RANGELEY, Maine — When the helicopter started flying overhead, airlifting the huge towers up Saddleback Mountain, something stirred in this small town in western Maine.
Instinctively, hundreds of locals made their way up the slopes to watch, to see it with their own eyes.
The towers were the supports for a new ski lift, but what they signaled was much more than that. After five long, painful years, Saddleback — the ski resort that is the centerpiece of this region, not to mention its largest employer — was roaring back to life.
“People were in tears,” Andy Shepard told me, getting choked up as he remembered the moment. “They weren’t sure that moment was ever going to happen, and it felt like the end of an emotional roller coaster.”
Shepard is the general manager of Saddleback, and when I introduced myself to him, he was adding logs to the fire in the resort’s lodge, just a few days before Christmas, a scene that might have seemed scripted had he known I was coming.
I’d made the four-plus hour drive north, to this remote corner of New England, to pursue a story that, if I’m honest, sounded too good to be true — a town reborn thanks to a socially conscious “impact investment” firm out of Boston promising to create a laidback ski utopia that would shore up the local economy while providing affordable housing and year-round benefits for its seasonal workers.
I was skeptical when I drove into town. By the time I left, I had been fully charmed. Granted, I was only there for a weekend. But I talked to many people who have been in Rangeley all their lives, people who had become hardened skeptics after watching a parade of prospective developers make big claims during the five years the resort had been closed. But now, as the mountain enters its second winter under the new owners, Arctaris, their skepticism has been replaced with a surging optimism, an infectious vibe that makes it easy to root for the project’s success.
What happened with Saddleback is a complex saga. Conceived by a group of local businessmen and opened in 1960, the resort stumbled through its early decades, changing hands over and over again until 2003, when the Berry family purchased the resort and oversaw a boom in attendance, one that its equipment could not keep up with. Lift lines, and impatience, grew through the 2010s, as the 1963 double-chair lift struggled to meet demand. When a loan to replace the chair lift fell through and potential investors pulled out, the Berrys shuttered the resort in 2015.
The repercussions were immense. Rangeley has long been an outdoor mecca, known for its fishing and boating in the summer — most development hugs the 33-mile shoreline of the majestic Rangeley Lake — and skiing and snowmobiling in the winter. The loss of the ski resort not only took out a huge chunk of the tourist trade, but also the workforce. People moved. Real estate prices sagged. Businesses went up for sale and remained that way.
“The day the mountain closed was probably the saddest day of my life,” said Jim Quimby, the resort’s longtime operations manager and a beloved core member of what is often described as “the Saddleback family.”
“Our staff was pretty beat up, and we felt like we let the whole community down,” said Quimby, who kept working for the previous owners, the Berry family, after the slopes were closed, maintaining the equipment and staying on call to show around any potential buyers. “I used to tell everybody, as long as I’m here, I have hope the mountain will reopen.”
Which is why he lists December 15, 2020, the day the resort finally reopened, as one of the happiest days of his life. Even during the pandemic, skiers flocked to the mountain that winter, Arctaris continued working on its promises, and a renewed energy pulsed through the community.
“Arctaris made it apparent that they didn’t want a standalone resort; they wanted mutual growth in the community, and they’ve done an outstanding job of working with, and communicating with, the town,” said Travis Ferland, the owner of the historic Rangeley Inn. “Their goals seemed pretty lofty, but we’re awed by how well they’re chipping away.”
On the surface, Rangeley itself still looks as it long has: small, local, just a handful of restaurants and lodging, with a blink-and-you’ll-miss-it downtown. And the plan is for it to stay that way, to resist the “high-end resort town” vibe and instead keep the town — which has a population of just over 1,000 people and a single K-12 school — grounded as a low-key launch point for outdoor adventure.
Jonny Wakefield, president of the Rangeley Lakes Snowmobile Club, the largest in the state, described Arctaris as a “godsend.”
“I get almost choked up thinking about it, but this group no one had heard of showed up and started making promises, and it was like ‘What’s the hitch?’ But they delivered,” Wakefield said. “They were our last best shot, and it feels like no other company could have done it any better. And you go up to the pub at the lodge and you actually see them there. You see Andy Shepard clearing tables. You see Jonathan Tower.”
Tower, who lives in Boston, is the cofounder and managing partner of Arctaris. When we spoke by phone, he told me that while Arctaris looks for investment opportunities in communities that have lost their largest employer, this was different. “When we reopen a paper mill in northern Michigan, my wife and kids aren’t very interested in joining me for the trip.” But they love skiing, and so Saddleback offered not only the opportunity for a far-reaching project, but a second community for his family.
“I grew up skiing, but as an investor it’s a cardinal sin to fall in love with your deal,” he said. He did anyway (after having his partner, who is from Nigeria and doesn’t ski, check it out), and ever since he said he has felt a sense of obligation to the town.
“There’s a lot of hope, and we’ve made a lot of promises, and the only thing we can do is try to pull them off,” he said.
In 18 months, Arctaris says it has spent more than $31 million on improvements to the mountain, including the new lift and preliminary work on a mid-mountain lodge. In June, it plans to break ground on the Saddleback House, a housing complex for 114 employees.
Other promises are still just that; year-round benefits for the seasonal workers, which would include telehealth consultation for physical and mental health, free prescriptions, and “a degree” of insurance for more comprehensive care, is still in task force phase. So is the larger goal to create a model for health and wellness care in rural communities. And while Tower said he hopes the resort itself will achieve profitability by next year, the plan calls for Arctaris to continue to spend far more on infrastructure than it makes.
As far as investments go, it’s risky, and in the past Tower has said Arctaris will not see a profit until the day it sells the resort. When pressed on that, though, he stressed that Saddleback was still very much a long-term commitment for Arctaris, and there were no active plans to sell the mountain. “I’d imagine that will happen years in the distant future,” he said.
It is a lot Arctaris has bitten off, and things like year-round health care for workers you employ for just a few months of the year — something they say is not done anywhere in the ski industry — sounds socially sound but financially dubious. But the belief is that community stability will lead to long-term resort stability.
Overseeing all of it is Shepard, who is uniquely qualified for the task: he has already helped revive two shuttered Maine ski resorts, Black Mountain and BigRock Mountain.
A former executive at L.L. Bean, Shepard founded the Maine Winter Sports Center two decades ago, a nonprofit that set out to develop a new community and economic model for rural Maine. That blueprint included buying and revitalizing failed alpine ski areas.
When he was recruited for the Saddleback job after Arctaris bought the place, Shepard said his only reservation was that he was an outsider coming into a resort famous for its tight-knit family vibe. “Ski areas always talk about being a family and all that kumbaya, but the reality is you go there and don’t feel that. ... Saddleback was always different. It wasn’t a marketing strategy. It was an authentic culture. It’s part of the DNA.”
For my family, our weekend in Rangeley was filled with welcoming vibes, a wink of “ain’t it great” as we browsed the Rangeley Region Sport Shop — where the owner, Brett Damm, was tying flies behind the counter — and had curly fries while watching the Patriots at Sarge’s Sports Pub & Grub, the popular town watering hole. But it was the mountain itself that was the star, with its view of the lake from the summit — the Appalachian Trail crosses the 4,121-foot peak — and the feeling of remote wilderness that is increasingly hard to find as ski resorts race to turn themselves into high-end theme parks.
Saddleback has 68 trails, and hardcore skiers know it for the Kennebago Steeps, a steep, gnarly section of the mountain that is home to the backcountry-esque Casablanca Glades. What’s interesting is that the Steeps, like the rest of the mountain, exists in its own pod, serviced by its own lift; there’s also an intermediate section of the mountain, and the beginner section is below the main lodge, so everyone can ski around people of like ability without accidental crossover. One of my kids was transitioning from snowboarding to skiing, so it was great to not have to worry about him getting run over while getting his feet under him.
Price-wise, there is no such thing as an affordable ski resort, and its hard to say what a lift ticket actually costs because they vary so much with online deals and advance purchase, but Saddleback is generally cheaper than its two larger Maine rivals: Sugarloaf, which is 45 minutes east, and Sunday River, which is 90 minutes southeast. Saddleback’s retail lift ticket is $99, but can go as low as $35 if you price hunt.
Weird as it might sound, I felt happy for the town, proud even, knowing what people had been through during the down years, and feeling how optimistic they were now.
Quimby said he knew exactly what I meant. “What we pulled off to get this place up and running again, we’re on cloud nine,” he said. Then he corrected himself.
“Actually, if there’s a cloud above nine, we’re on that cloud.”