RUMFORD — Ownership of Black Mountain Ski Resort was transferred Friday to its volunteer board of directors, a community-based, nonprofit corporation, effective Monday.
Andy Shepard, president and CEO of Maine Winter Sports Center, said at a news conference that transferring ownership to the board seemed to be the most reasonable ownership arrangement the center could make.
"Three weeks ago when we got together, the community was facing a pretty tough challenge," Shepard said of the June 26 closing of Black Mountain's Alpine area due to a funding crisis.
The mountain has been owned by the Libra Foundation-financed sports center since 2003 and operated by a board of directors.
"I think communities, like people, are defined by how they face those challenges," Shepard said. "And the way the community of Rumford and Western Maine has approached the possibility of losing Black Mountain has been inspiring to me, inspiring to the Libra Foundation and, frankly, inspiring to thousands of people across the country."
The mountain recently has been the subject of an intensive fundraising campaign by Rumford residents and skiers after voters turned down a request to raise $51,000 through taxation for the mountain.
In the week following that June 11 vote, the Maine Winter Sports Center announced it would be forced to close the Alpine trails without taxpayer funding, which was intended to carry the ski area through the summer, get it ready for winter and pay wages for three employees, according to Roger Arsenault, president of Black Mountain’s board of directors.
"When you look at the Facebook page and you look at the Black Mountain website, the GoFundMe Internet fundraising site and all the comments on there about where we're getting the money from, it's clear that Black Mountain is important to a lot of people — very important," Shepard said.
"Because of that overwhelming support that we've seen, because the fundraising campaign has gone on for as well as it has, the Maine Winter Sports Center and the Libra Foundation are pleased to announce that we are making a gift of Black Mountain to the Black Mountain board made up of Roger Arsenault and nine other intrepid individuals who've been running this mountain very effectively, very professionally for the last 10 years," Shepard said.
He said that will allow Black Mountain to move forward, "with the possibility of opening next year if that's their decision."
Black Mountain markets itself as a family-affordable ski area, with 1,380 feet of vertical drop featuring 35 trails — covering a range of 17 kilometers — and five glades. It offers night skiing and, last year after installing a new snow-making system, the sports center dropped its daily lift-ticket price to $15, which the organization credits for drawing the mountain’s greatest number of visitors ever last year.
Shepard said the reduced price grew ticket sales by 197 percent, four times the number of visitors.
"When you've got four times the amount of traffic coming through the mountain, everything else works — retail, cafe, rentals, ski lessons — everything you're trying to offer to people," he said. "That's the key to me. That's what's going to make this work and be sustainable. That $15 price to get people to come and ski isn't a gimmick. I think that's the future of Alpine skiing."
Shepard said Black Mountain has two important things going for it.
"One is the people of this region who have clearly decided that Black Mountain is too important to let close and the other is this new business model, which I think will end up revolutionizing the ski industry," he said.
"The average ticket price for skiing in the United States last year was $89, and you think of how many people can't afford to ski on a regular basis if that's how much it cost.
"Black Mountain at $15 a day is by far the least expensive skiing experience in the state of Maine," he said. "The quality of skiing here is exceptional and when you add a $15 day ticket to that, that is a unique skiing experience in the United States."
Shepard said he was confident the ski area would continue to operate "for generations to come."
Arsenault said Black Mountain would continue its $15 deal, but everything else is on the table.
The mountain, which regularly hosts championship high school and collegiate ski meets, is considered one of the nation’s top Nordic skiing facilities. It hosts training events and meets for U.S. Olympic skiers. In 2003 and 2004, it was the site of the Chevrolet U.S. Cross Country Championships and in 2011 hosted the U.S. Cross Country Championships.
According to its website, Black Mountain's trails were developed by Rumford's Chummy Broomhall, a two-time Olympian, designer of the Lake Placid and Squaw Valley Olympic cross-county trails and a Nordic snow-grooming pioneer.
The ski area includes a tubing park and, during the summer, it offers a number of camps for local youths and athletes in training.
"Now that this mountain is community owned, the sense of urgency of fundraising is even greater than it was before this announcement," Shepard said. "The Maine Winter Sports Center has always been here with the Libra Foundation to pay the bills."
He added, "It's now the responsibility of the community. The success that we've had with our fundraising effort up to this point has been outstanding, inspiring, monumental, but it has to continue. And every dollar that's invested in this mountain this year gets this mountain that much closer to being sustainable in the long term."
To date, the fundraising effort has raised more than $125,000 toward a goal of $200,000, he said. That's not nearly enough to operate the ski area, which cost $650,000 to run last season, Arsenault said on June 26.
He said the ski area had an annual loss of $195,000, which the Maine Winter Sports Center quietly funded as it invested millions of dollars in capital improvements.
This past season, Black Mountain went from losing more than $200,000 to losing about $180,000, which had to do with some of the mountain's expansion and cost overruns, Arsenault said.
This year, the resort was projected to suffer an $85,000 loss, and move into profitability two years from June 26.
That, however, was before the sports center announced it was closing the Alpine area.
After Friday's news conference, Arsenault and Shepard explained the lack of profitability.
"We're in a ski area mecca and we were charging $34 for a lift ticket and we had a season pass price of $249," Arsenault said.
Simultaneously, Sunday River offered a season pass price of $350, but had a much longer season that went from November 15 to May 1. Black Mountain opened on weekends from late December through mid-April.
"It was hard for us to compete," Arsenault said. "Dropping it to $15 made people aware of our darn good value."
Shepard shouldered the blame.
"The mountain's been operating in the red because we haven't found the right business model," he said. "If you want to fault anybody for the mountain being in the red for the last nine years, I would fault me, because it took me nine years to come up with a business model that made sense, and I think this ($15) one does."
Arsenault said he knows the board and community won't be able to sustain the current level of fundraising annually. And there isn't any expectation to do that. However, he said, there should be an annual campaign to engage the community and businesses but without the $200,000 goal to get the mountain started.
Shepard said the current fundraising efforts will help establish a "rainy-day fund," should the weather not cooperate. That money is also expected to cover the projected loss from this year. Additionally, he said Black Mountain will become profitable in the near future and that will add to the rainy-day fund.
Shepard said Black Mountain is a nonprofit corporation whose purpose is to introduce children to a healthy outdoor lifestyle and to serve as an economic engine in the region.
"And I think it does that beautifully," he said. "Black Mountain is one of the more positive things that Rumford has going for it."