Travel

An uphill battle for a ski town left out in the cold

A vacant chairlift at Saddleback Mountain.
A vacant chairlift at Saddleback Mountain.

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RANGELEY, Maine — Saddleback Mountain isn’t so much a ghost town as it is a place frozen in a state of ambiguity.

Heading into what is expected to be its fourth consecutive season of dormancy, the ski area gives the appearance of needing only a blanket of snow in order to be ready to open for the winter. A vacant chairlift rests still in the midst of foliage just past peak, seemingly waiting for little more than the flip of a switch.

There’s the glow of a light in the distance of the lodge, tables and chairs settled in an inviting ambiance by windows looking out onto the empty expanse of the back deck. A “closed” trail marker, normally used to restrict access on the mountain, is instead balanced on an automatic sliding glass door a level below. Adjacent to the entrance is a window to a room that displays full racks of hoodies and long-sleeve T’s. A sign atop one of the racks champions the 50 percent off sale that probably took place at one time or another.

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However, the immediacy with which it seems Saddleback could be up and running is a direct counter to its cold reality.

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“We’ve been talking about this constantly for over three years,” Rangeley resident Rob Welch said, “It’s kind of an emotional drain on everyone.”

Saddleback closed prior to the winter of 2014-15 when owners Bill and Irene Berry came up short in their bid to raise the $3 million they insisted they needed in order to install a new lift. The owners sought a new buyer for the ski area over the next three years while the small town of Rangeley sat idly by in anticipation.

In the decade prior, the Berrys had transformed Saddleback into one of the more interesting lift-served destinations in the East, changes highlighted by the Casablanca glades and chutes which opened in 2009. The Kennebago Steeps area was billed as the “largest steep skiing and riding facility in the East,” with a dozen black and double black diamond runs that provided a truly unique skiing experience. Views from the 4,120-foot summit provided stunning views of the unspoiled northwestern Maine mountains and the expanse of Rangeley’s prized lakes. It was a ski area backed by a simplicity overshadowed by many resorts and conglomerates in the East, yet one that also promised it could pack just as fierce a punch in terms of its impressive terrain.

“It was almost like skiing used to be back in the ’70s,” Ken McDavitt, owner of a Rangeley recreational store, said. “You could let you kids ski without having to worry about them, it wasn’t super crowded, they have a lot of woods skiing, lot of powder skiing, It just has a nice feel and vibe to it.”

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Hope that the mountain might finally reopen materialized just over a year ago when Australian developer Sebastian Monsour and the Majella Group agreed to purchase the mountain from the Berry family. But the sale has never been officially completed, and things got even murkier earlier this summer when Monsour was arrested for fraud in Australia.

So instead the ski area sits looking down upon sleepy Rangeley in a state of purgatory for the year-round recreational destination.

“It’s painful,” said Welch, owner of Rangeley bed and breakfast Pleasant Street Inn. “It’s painful to watch trees grow up in the middle of trails. It’s painful to watch all the equipment rusting. It’s painful to watch businesses, locally, that say, ‘Boy, if the mountain would just open we might survive.”

Welch is originally a native of Needham who, inspired by Thoreau, moved to the remote Rangeley area in 1972 after following up on a pact he made with a high school friend to build a log cabin in the woods. He opened the Pleasant Street Inn in 2005, just as Saddleback was enjoying a revitalization under the Berrys. But today, he estimates that he has lost 20 to 25 percent of his winter business since the mountain has closed, a refrain that he said is all too common throughout town.

“I think that’s pretty fair to say that most everybody I talk to that’s in the hospitality business, certainly they were affected equally as much, some maybe even a little more,” Welch said.

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Ken and Sandy McDavitt fall into that category. The husband and wife took over ownership of the Alpine Shop in June 2015, only to hear the news of Saddleback’s demise one month later.

‘It’s painful to watch trees grow up in the middle of trails. It’s painful to watch all the equipment rusting. It’s painful to watch businesses, locally, that say, “Boy, if the mountain would just open we might survive.” ’

“It was a bit of a surprise,” Sandy McDavitt said. “We didn’t expect to hear that. But we’re entrepreneurs and sometimes you just ride the wave and sometimes that’s just what it is. Nobody expected it to be four years of not knowing the future.

“I got hopeful last year and then things just sort of ended and went south. I’ve heard a lot of rumors recently that sound exciting, but I don’t get my hopes up.”

The financial issues the McDavitts face with the lack of a ski area is one that plagues many businesses in Rangeley these days. Saddleback had served as a major employer during the winter months, giving employees who worked at the various inns and restaurants in town during the summer and fall months an avenue to live in the Rangeley area year-round. With the ski area gone, business owners like the McDavitts are struggling to fix the deficit in employees.

“Here we are two to three hours from anything and people don’t have a winter job,” Sandy McDavitt said. “So they are not going to come here and work for us. All the restaurants, myself, any of the shops in town, we are so desperate for help here. There’s nobody to hire.”

With a graduating class of 17, the local high school isn’t much help as a source of finding workers either, despite the pleading of Rangeley businesses. The workforce issue has also led to slower response time during Rangeley’s recent busy summer and fall seasons, with some establishments under pressure to accommodate guests in a more timely style, much like restaurants getting backed up due to a dearth of servers.

“We really need that open for a lot of reasons,” Sandy McDavitt said. “Economic reasons and for what we do at least have left in this town, which is vital and doing great and well, but we don’t have anybody to work for us.”

The protected water quality of the Rangeley lakes have long served as a prime spot for fishing, and popular snowmobile trails that have kept the region’s winters alive. But McDavitt said that one-third of her business had been from the ski crowd, so it doesn’t become an easy swap: ski business replaced by snow machines.

Even so, ever since Saddleback shuttered, the service industries in Rangeley haven’t had a workforce that they could count on.

There’s not much Saddleback hopefuls can count on as another winter approaches. The mountain’s website redirects to a Majella Group URL with no more information than a submit form. (Majella did not respond to an inquiry to comment.) When asked about Saddleback’s future, some people in town simply roll their eyes. Others pledge confidence that they will one day ski those slopes again.

But mostly, there’s an uncertainty that is growing stale.

“You want to be hopeful but you have no news and you hear a rumor, you cannot count on anything because who knows what’s right and what isn’t right,” said Ginny Nuttall, owner of Rangeley’s Noyes Real Estate.

Rangeley residents seem to have tired of rumors as a source of news.

“It’s less hopeful than it was. Part of it is we don’t know anything. We don’t hear anything. That’s the way business is — you have to be careful — but you just wish that it would happen, and I think that people are becoming a little more concerned.

“I’m a little disappointed as everybody is. The ski industry is a difficult industry. You need to know what you’re doing when you buy a ski area, so you’ve got to find the right buyer for something.”

Nuttall moved to Rangeley in 1972 and worked at Saddleback before becoming a teacher for 25 years. She said that the absence of the mountain initially impacted real estate less than she had expected, and that the region is coming off a stretch of three good years in terms of sales.

But she knows it’s the property up Saddleback Mountain Road that would elicit the biggest roar of approval, particularly for a ski area that boasts a lodge only a little more than a decade old, and an open canvas of land just waiting for a hungry developer looking to add a golf course, hotel, zip line, or any of the other attractions that have made ski areas throughout New England year-round destinations.

“I think there’s too much infrastructure up there that’s really usable that it won’t sell,” she said. “There’s so much potential up there.

“It’s not the skiing that makes the money, it’s the other part. And you really have to know how to make that. If a group came in that really had ski experience and investment, that would be a great boom for the area.”

Still, that potential lives in silence on the part of the Berrys and Majella.

“One of my criticisms has always been to me they had a responsibility to the community and they haven’t been very forthright on the progress of moving the mountain forward with new owners,” Welch said. “The excuse always is, ‘Well we have to keep everything confidential.’ Well, yeah I guess you do, but on the other side, all of us are paying for that business model.”

Welch was principal of the local high school from 1987-92, and he recalled how bus loads of students would make the trek to the ski area during a Tuesday ski program. That’s a fabric that the community has since lost.

“It went beyond just selling some tickets. It had a real connection to the kids in town,” he said. “And that’s gone.

“This was our mountain. This was everyone’s mountain.”

Big-time skiing is only 30 miles away in Carrabassett Valley, where Sugarloaf Mountain Resort is one of the East Coast’s largest resorts, beckoning thousands of visitors every weekend. So it isn’t like every option has been swindled from local skiers and riders.

“But it just doesn’t feel the same as Saddleback does,” Ken McDavitt said.

McDavitt grew up in Winchester, but his family drove to northern Maine every weekend during winters to ski. His father taught skiing at former ski area Bald Mountain in Oquossoc, a Rangeley village, a job that eventually evolved into the shop that Ken and Sandy run today, inheriting 60 years of a family skiing heritage.

Who will inherit the one that hovers over the town and its long-term sustainability still remains a mystery, even if the surroundings suggest an active winter there could be imminent.

Instead, Rangeley waits, listens, and hopes, even if that’s a feeling that has begun to dwindle the longer things stay silent.

Eric Wilbur can be reached at ewilbs@yahoo.com.