After would-be buyer arrested, Maine group eyes Saddleback

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A group that once had been in negotiations to purchase Saddleback plans to approach the ski area’s owners about reviving those talks following the news Thursday that an Australian businessman who had entered an agreement to buy the resort was arrested and charged with fraud.

“We see a path forward that can work and we are prepared to lead,” said Crystal Canney, the executive director of the Saddleback Mountain Foundation, a nonprofit composed of area business owners and skiers.

Sebastian Monsour, CEO of the Majella Group, was arrested Thursday afternoon following a raid of his office in Brisbane, Australia. Police in Queensland said during a news conference that the arrest followed a “long and protracted investigation” into allegations that Monsour misused $5 million he received from a Chinese investor.

It is unclear how Monsour’s arrest will impact the sale agreement. Neither Saddleback’s owners, Bill and Irene Berry, nor the Majella Group could be reached for comment Thursday.

Saddleback closed almost four years ago, after Berrys could not raise the $3 million they needed for a new chairlift.

The Saddleback Mountain Foundation reached a verbal agreement to purchase the ski area for $6 million in the fall of 2016, but were able to raise only a little more $1 million before the Berrys opted instead for a deal with the Australia-based Majella Group in June 2017, when Monsour said he planned to make Saddleback the premier ski resort in North America.

Terms of the agreement were not announced and the sale has yet to be completed.

Monsour had hoped to close on the purchase by the end of last summer, but the Rangeley ski area remained shuttered for a third winter. This spring Monsour said he had spent “in excess of $2 million” on a deposit with the Berrys to enter into a contract agreement and on research for a business plan to give to investors.

“We wouldn’t have spent this much money on planning it if we didn’t think it could work,” he said in March. “Our focus now is to get the deal done and get the mountain open.”

Canney said the Saddleback Mountain Foundation returned the money it had raised after the Berrys entered into a contract with Majella, but continued to work on a plan to purchase the ski area.

“We’ve been working on a new business plan the past eight to 10 months,” she said. “We wanted to be ready if the opportunity presented itself, and that’s why we continued to work on it. It’s no reflection on Majella. We continued to believe in this project.

“The Saddleback Mountain Foundation stayed together despite Saddleback being off the market. We never gave up. We care about the conservation and the economic development. And we still believe we have a place at the table.“

Canney said her group can come up with money “from a combination of funding sources. We do have a stronger business plan than the first time we were at the table. We believe we have a deep, deep connection with the community, because when this is successful it will conserve land and open the ski area and have an economic impact in the region.”

Doubts about Monsour’s intentions for the ski area were put in doubt this year when he was quoted as saying that the reason he was buying the ski resort was for the U.S. EB-5 visa program, in which entrepreneurs, their spouses and unmarried children under 21 are eligible to apply for green cards if they invest in certain U.S. real estate projects that create jobs. The EB-5 program provides foreign investors with an expedited process to secure visas to live and work in the United States if they give at least $500,000 to a qualified project.

Monsour later said his comments in a recording of a staff meeting were part of a larger discussion on financial models and were taken out of context in media reports. He said much had happened in putting together a business plan to purchase and redevelop the resort since then.

The Chinese investor Monsour is accused of defrauding now lives in Australia and filed a civil lawsuit in December accusing Monsour of deceit and taking advantage of an Australian visa program.

Monsour is being held without bail, Australian police said.

Some in Rangeley said they were surprised and disappointed by the news of Monsour’s arrest Thursday.

Bob Greene of Sandy Plantation didn’t know about Monsour being arrested, but was sorry to hear it.

“That certainly doesn’t bode well for the future of his relationship with whatever deal he has with the Berry family,” said Greene, who has served on Saddleback’s ski patrol. “At the end of the day, that’s between them. None of us have any control over it. The only thing we can do is sit and wait. The Berrys may have other people interested in it, but it’s all speculation. None of us are getting any information.”

Wess Connally, the owner of Books, Lines & Thinkers bookstore in Rangeley for 22 years, said the ski area’s closure for the past three winters has hurt the region.

“When we don’t have skiing, I don’t have much business in the winter,” Connally said. “We’re all disappointed the ski area has not opened.”

Connally cited the Balsams Resort in New Hampshire, which has remained closed since 2011 despite being purchased four years ago by Les Otten, the former head of American Skiing Co.

“It’s hard to imagine that Saddleback would stay closed. It’s an awful thought,” Connally said. “But obviously that can happen. Look at the Balsams. It’s not looking good.”

However, Karen Ogulnick, executive director of the Rangeley Chamber of Commerce, remains confident.

“It’s obviously disappointing news about the potential buyer,” Ogulnick said. “I just am still going to be positive that there is a buyer out there who is going to realize what a fantastic gem Saddleback and the entire Rangeley region is.”

 

Sebastian Monsour, CEO of the Majella Group, is interviewed in 2017. (Morning Sentinel file photo)

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