Saddleback effort hits stride: ‘There’s good incentive to move a little fast’

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The base lodge at Saddleback Maine
The base lodge at Saddleback Maine

FARMINGTON – A community effort to purchase Saddleback Mountain is rolling forward this month, as organizers line up fundraising and iron out details associated with the creation of a new nonprofit organization.

Organizers associated with Saddleback Mountain Community Resort, LLC held an informational meeting on the University of Maine at Farmington campus to update the approximately 30 people in attendance on the ongoing effort to purchase the state’s third-largest ski slope. Saddleback Mountain failed to open for the 2015-16 ski season after owners announced an inability to secure $3 million in financing to purchase a new four-person chairlift. The Berry family has owned the resort since 2004, investing more than $40 million in infrastructure improvements and employing approximately 300 people during the resort’s peak winter season.

The impact on the area was significant. Peter Stein, president of Scientific Solutions and one of the organizers of the SMCR effort, estimated that $18 million was lost in the Rangeley area as a result of the mountain being closed and an unusually dry, mild winter that reduced snowmobile traffic. The economic influence of Saddleback extends beyond the Rangeley region; Steve Philbrick, owner of Bald Mountain Camps, suggested the southern portion of the county was at least partially reliant upon through-traffic during the winter months.

“If we don’t do well in Rangeley,” Philbrick said, “you don’t do well down here.”

SMCR’s plan is to form a 501(c)3 nonprofit organization called the Saddleback Mountain Foundation that would own the mountain. The agreement with the Berry family, as presented by the SMCR organizers, would be to raise $4 million through a combination of membership sales and donations. Of those funds, $2.2 million would go to the Berry family with the other $1.8 million kept as operating capital. The Berry family would provide $3.8 million in seller financing, while the Trust for Public Land would purchase more than 3,290 acres of land to the south of the resort. The trust would not own that land in the long run, instead selling it back to an entity committed to long-term stewardship, such as the New England Forestry Foundation.

Moving ahead, Stein said, the SMCR has a $25 million capital improvement project planned, including the purchase of the ski area, replacing the chair lift and the Cupsuptic T-bar lift, expanding the base lodge, adding a Magalloway lift to facilitate ski accessibility to west-side real estate developments, as well as adding additional lifts, trails and snowmaking equipment.

Organizers are also seeking to closer tie the snowmobile industry to the Saddleback resort, potentially creating an operations center below the Royal Tiger run or South Branch lift to provide better access. Organizers also want to further integrate the downhill skiing area with the cross country trail network. These proposals would be longer term goals, and not operational by the 2017-18 ski season.

The $25 million would be collected through a variety of means, Stein said, including membership and condo land sales, conservation and logging easements, fundraising and possibly qualifying for New Market Tax Credits via the mountain’s low-income hiring. Counted predominantly among the land sales would be selling property for a hotel.

The first step, however, is to raise the $4 million. Stein said that organizers had raised a total of $750,000 to date, in both cash and solid pledges, with that figure combining the funds from memberships as well as outright donations. Organizers previously surveyed more than 800 people who were interested in the proposal, with that survey generating $5 million in commitments.

Membership options, named after Saddleback trails, range from one-year, $500 ‘Royal Tiger’ memberships to lifetime ‘Dark Wizard’ memberships for $25,000. Residents of Rangeley, Rangeley Plantation, Dallas Plantation and Sandy River Plantation would be able to obtain a free Royal Tiger membership by showing a valid driver’s license or state identification.

According to Stein and other organizers, a major component of the entire proposal is obtaining the 501(c)3 designation for the foundation. That designation would allow the foundation to reinvest profits back into the resort, which would be operated by the SMCR, LLC. It is a similar method to the one utilized at Mad River Glen in Vermont, a resort that the SMCR has used as a sort of template for Saddleback. Mad River Glen is a true co-op, while the proposed governance structure for the Saddleback foundation would have resort members selecting a general board of approximately 200 members, with that board in turn selecting a Board of Trustees. The trustees would oversee the resort’s general manager.

Given its geographical distance from major markets, Stein said, organizers see Saddleback as a predominantly weekend and holiday resort. Their analysis is that running the resort as a for-profit business that attempts to recoup its investment through ticket sales isn’t practical in the long run.

Organizers are in the process of applying for 501(c)3 designation and locking up the $4 million. There are a number of reasons for haste, perhaps chief among them the approaching ski season. The plan would be to reopen Saddleback for the 2017-18 ski season, but organizers are hoping to at least operate some of the resort’s lifts for members, families and their guests this winter. Such operations would probably be limited to weekends and holidays, at least until February vacation, and may involve limited grooming and snowmaking activity. Whether the Rangeley chairlift would be replaced in time for the 2017-18 ski season remains a question of both timing and funding.

There’s another reason that the SMCR organizers are looking to move quickly; there may be other interests seeking to purchase Saddleback. “We want to buy [the resort] ourselves,” Stein said.

Acknowledging that the effort was coming together quickly at the meeting, Stein said that “there’s good incentive to move a little fast.”

There are still questions that need to be answered, some of which were posed at Monday’s informational hearing. For example, Saddleback is currently part of Sandy River and Dallas Plantation’s tax base; the mountain provides approximately 10 percent of Sandy River’s tax revenue. Switching the resort’s operation to a 501(c)3 would affect that revenue, an element that Stein said would need to be addressed.

Applying for 501(c)3 status itself is not guaranteed, although organizers believe they have a good case as to the mountain’s importance to the public good after the dismal 2015-16 season. Philbrick said that the effort could benefit from more support at the state level, specifically a letter of support from the governor that organizers had wanted to include in a packet of information made available to would-be members.

The various memberships are accompanied by apparel giveaways, as well as benefits such as extra passes, free beverages and discounts at the ski store. In light of the interest in running the resort on a limited basis this winter, SMCR is offering an extra incentive for those sending membership payments before Nov. 27, 2016. Specifically, Royal Tiger/Green Weaver members can replace their minor season pass with a book of 10 day tickets or a senior pass valid for skiers over the age of 65.  That offer does not apply to the free Royal Tiger membership being offered to Rangeley-area residents. Tightline/Dark Wizard couples will be allowed to add their respective membership for their spouse for $3,000 or $5,000 respectively.

Once the $4 million has been raised, the SMCR would sign a purchase and sale agreement with the Berry family after putting down a $500,000 deposit. The organization would own the ski area as soon as the paper work is completed, allowing the Trust for Public Land to close on its portion of the land deal.

If the fundraising target isn’t reached by July 31, 2017, club memberships would be refunded. Gifts donated to the effort are being used to defray legal and organizational costs and will not be returned.

Saddleback Mountain, for its part, has acknowledged SMCR’s efforts through its Facebook page, saying it wishes the new organization well.

“We continue to work with the Saddleback Mountain Foundation,” the post said, “in addition to the other qualified buyers who are also in the process of pursuing the purchase of the resort.”

Details of the memberships being offered through the SMCR.
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