RUMFORD — The chief executive officer of a problem-solving company has launched an online fund to raise money for the Black Mountain ski area.
The owner of Black Mountain announced Wednesday it was closing the facility's alpine mountain because of a funding crisis. By a vote of 497-939, townspeople on June 11 defeated an initiated article that requested $51,000 to fund Black Mountain as a recreational resource. The money was to help carry the ski area through the summer, get it ready for winter and pay wages for three employees.
Gagnon said Thursday his business "adopted" the ski area as its featured charity. By 6 p.m., 5 percent of the fund's goal of raising $55,000 had been raised through donations.
"Black Mountain has been an important part of my family for the past 33 years, and now the next generation is on skis enjoying the family experience it brings," Gagnon said. "In 13 minutes, using the power of the Internet, we raised $2,300 towards Black Mountain and that number continues to grow. The town of Rumford may not see how beneficial Black Mountain is, but I feel that others will step up for this worthy cause."
On Wednesday, Andy Shepard, Maine Winter Sports Center president and chief executive officer, announced that the center had closed Black Mountain's alpine venue. The nonprofit center, which has owned the nonprofit Rumford ski hill since 2003, is now contemplating what to do about its Nordic center.
"Several years ago, we took on the challenge of turning Black Mountain around with an understanding that we needed strong community support to make the economics work," Shepard said. "I know the mountain still has a lot of support within some sectors, but the electorate told us clearly that there are other priorities and we absolutely respect that."
Also on Wednesday, a Black Mountain supporter launched a Facebook site called "Friends of Black Mountain of Maine."
Shepard's site has a $100,000 goal. By 6 p.m. Thursday, it had raised $2,675.
The growing rally to save Black Mountain continued 30 minutes later on Thursday evening as many in the crowd of about 120 people brainstormed additional fundraising ideas.
"Each year, Black Mountain has been running in the red," said Roger Arsenault, president of Black Mountains' board of directors.
"The MWSC has owned this mountain for 10 years now and they've invested more than $9 million in this facility as a gift to the community and all they asked in return was support from the community," he said.
Arsenault said the ski area had an annual loss of $195,000, which the Maine Winter Sports Center quietly funded as it invested in capital improvements. Now, the economy has caught up to the center, which operates solely on grants from the Libra Foundation.
"This year, everything was looking very good," Arsenault said. "We went from $200,000-plus to about a $180,000 loss, which had to do with some of the expansion at the mountain and cost overruns."
He said this year, Black Mountain was going to project an $85,000 loss, and then two years from today, move into profitability.
But uncertainty hit Maine with state revenue-sharing threatened and the Rumford paper mill's survivability in question, and the need to reduce taxes to help.
"And we lost the community support and community partnership, so that was pretty much the straw that broke the camel's back," Arsenault said.
That sent Black Mountain into the red by more than $130,000 this year, counting the projected $85,000 loss.
Arsenault said MWSC has decided to cease operations at all of its alpine facilities, which means it's closing Big Rock and Black Mountain.
But supporters have stepped up financially.
Arsenault mentioned Gagnon's and Shepard's fundraisers, and said that any money raised to help the mountain operate would be placed into an escrow account. If the mountain fails to open this winter, the money will be returned.
He said that because Black Mountain cannot be run by a for-profit business because of its past arrangements, Shepard has 30 days to find a nonprofit to take over its operations. During that time, he's made money available to help the ski area's employees.
Rumford resident Len Greaney asked whether Black Mountain could remain open if $150,000 were raised.
"We budgeted to have an $85,000 loss, so if we raised $150,000, we could run the business as a nonprofit ourselves," Arsenault said. "But, if the weather goes south and we have a $200,000 loss, we're done."
He added, "Closing is not an option. We've got to do something to save this mountain for this community."