The ski season kicks off this weekend at Sunday River and Sugarloaf, but Maine’s third-largest ski area – Saddleback – may sit idle for the third consecutive winter.
Saddleback owners Bill and Irene Berry of Farmington announced on June 28 that they would sell the Rangeley ski area to the Australia-based Majella Group. Majella CEO Sebastian Monsour said at that time that the company would purchase Saddleback by the end of the summer and turn it into the “premier ski area in North America.”
But the sale has not been completed. A post Thursday morning on Saddleback’s Facebook page – Majella’s preferred medium for sharing information about the ski area – offered little clarity about when a deal might be finalized.
Monsour, who signed the Facebook post, said Majella Group is “continuing to work to successfully finalize this sale. I am whole heartedly committed to this deal.”
He called it a “complex and challenging deal. It has posed numerous challenges to our investors.”
Monsour added that Rangeley chair replacement – a needed upgrade at the mountain – has been put off to next season. He said he remains committed to open the mountain in a limited capacity this winter “if possible.”
Thursday’s Facebook post sounded similar to one Monsour posted on Oct. 21: “Majella Group’s acquisition of Saddleback is progressing. Whilst details around the acquisition are a matter of a confidentiality agreement, I can confirm we are within the original parameters of the agreement. Please do not take our silence as a lack of progress, rather a focus on the task at hand.”
On Sept. 17, a post on Saddleback’s Facebook page by the ski area staff said the only thing that could delay the ski area reopening is Mother Nature.
Fred LaMontagne, a retired Portland fire chief and the CEO for Majella’s Western Region, is based out of Saddleback’s lodge, which remains open and is partially staffed. LaMontagne did not respond to emails or phone calls to comment for this story. Neither did Bill and Irene Berry. Leah Kidd, Majella’s media liaison in Brisbane, Australia, said in an email this week, “I will get back to you on this soon” about the sale.
Skiers are frustrated about the lack of information from Majella about the sale and confused about whether the ski area might open this winter. Adding to the confusion: Saddleback’s trails have been mowed, and last weekend the ski area conducted a First Aid recertification class for ski patrollers.
Ted Eames, a volunteer ski patroller from Oquossoc, said LaMontagne told ski patrollers last weekend that the ski area will open – but not when. Eames remains skeptical of the timetable. “I would not plan a vacation round it,” he said.
The Berry family announced in July 2015 that the ski area would go up for sale unless they could secure $3 million in financing for a new chairlift. When they failed to secure financing, the mountain closed. It remained closed for the past two winters while the family pursued a buyer.
Saddleback season-pass holders have their doubts about the Majella deal after two years of Facebook posts about prospective buyers who never materialized.
“I’m not holding my breath given the way things have gone over the past two years,” said Tracy Sesselberg of Cape Elizabeth. “I hate to say it, but we’ve heard this all before. It’s a little like the boy who cried wolf.”
Daneel Yvette Dafni of Freeport said Saddleback is her favorite Maine ski area. She and friends used to rent ski houses at Saddleback, but now they are doing so at Sunday River.
“Unfortunately, myself and a lot of friends are just kind of assuming the season is not going to happen,” Dafni said. “We’ve all been hopeful, but with trepidation because of the lack of information. This summer and fall the lawn was mowed. But I really kind of thought, this is no way to pull it all together. It has an abandoned look and feel.”
Saddleback skier Jamie Wright, who owns Gorham Bike and Ski in Portland, thought the ski area looks closer to reopening than it has in the past two years.
“I do see progress,” Wright said. “All the chairs are off the lifts except the Rangeley chair. This all costs a fair amount of money so one would think they are trying to get open. Not sure why the sale has not through.”
Megan Roberts of West Farmington, who grew up skiing at Saddleback and lives near the Berry family, said it all seems strange.
“I’m a little nervous. And I like to be optimistic,” said Roberts, who retied as the manager at Titcomb Mountain in Farmington this year.
Karen Ogulnick, the executive director of the Rangeley Region Chamber of Commerce, said her only source of information on Saddleback is its Facebook page.
“My understanding is they have an agreement to purchase the mountain and they’re working on it,” Ogulnick said. “We’re all waiting for the announcement that that’s completed. Everyone likes to see the mountain open for obvious reasons. It’s good for tourism, it’s good for the region.”
Before Saddleback closed in August, 2015, it was the third largest employer in Franklin County during the winters.
Greg Sweetser, the executive director at Ski Maine, also wants to be optimistic about Saddleback, but finds it hard.
“People are disappointed. Everyone is hoping that the work taking place now will result in some kind of operation this winter,” Sweetser said. “That said, everyone can look at the calendar, with the temperatures coming, winter will be here this weekend.”
Sunday River plans to open Saturday at 8 a.m. with at least a few trails open, said Darcy Lambert, Sunday River’s communications director. It will be open seven days a week going forward. The ski area is usually open by mid-November.
Sugarloaf will open Sunday, a week ahead of schedule, said Communications Director Noelle Tuttle. It is almost two week’s ahead of last year’s opening.
Undated photo of Saddleback Mountain in Sandy River Plantation in Franklin County.