AUBURN — Last winter, it was too warm to make snow, a lot. And it didn’t snow naturally, a lot.
Plans for a new summer adventure park weren’t hitch-free. And a new Halloween attraction was an unabashed hit — except it rained three of six nights and part of the draw was a bonfire.
It hasn’t been an easy year to be the new owners of Lost Valley.
Scott Shanaman and his wife, April, announced plans to buy and effectively save the small ski resort last fall after a publicly rocky year for the resort.
They walked in with a lot of work to do — and did a lot of work. But when asked last week if they’re glad they bought it, he smiled wryly.
“Ask me next year,” Scott said.
With a little encouragement from April, his smile widened.
Whatever 2016 brought, the New Hampshire couple who moved to Auburn in August is forging ahead: Construction of a new tubing park is underway and construction of a 76-foot “conveyor belt” lift for beginners starts soon. Both are planned for the coming ski season, now less than one month away.
“There’s optimism,” Scott said. “And there were certainly bright spots, but it definitely was not a first great year, that’s for sure. It’s been very, very, very difficult.”
“But we survived,” April said. “The fact that we survived makes me think it can only get better.”
‘THE WORST WINTER IN OVER 30 YEARS’
In 2014, Lost Valley went through months of will-they-or-won’t-they when the owners announced the resort was deeply in debt and might not open for winter. The community rallied, raising funds to open one lift and the season was on, but a year later, owners were looking to get out.
Scott was familiar with the two-lift, 15-trail resort through years of servicing it with his lift inspection company, Aerial NDT Inspection, and said he saw its potential.
Six weeks before opening day last year, the Shanamans signed a purchase-and-sale agreement to take over Lost Valley.
Then, it didn’t snow. And it was too warm to turn the snow guns on.
“It was probably the worst winter in over 30 years in the New England ski industry,” Scott said. “We opened for the last two days of the Christmas vacation, and when I say, ‘We opened,’ we opened with a trail or two. Christmas week and February vacation week are two of the most important weeks to the industry, so if you lose Christmas week, you start off on your heels.”
The National Weather Service doesn’t track snowfall in Auburn, but neighboring Poland saw 39.1 inches of snow last winter. Average is 76.5, according to meteorologist Tom Hawley.
The Shanamans had bought Lost Valley looking to turn it into a four-season spot. Headed into the summer, plans for a new inflatable water Adventure Park took off a little slower than hoped, he said.
A rock-climbing wall wasn’t permitted in time to materialize, and a bungee attraction was announced but didn’t come together.
“It’s group-dependent,” Scott said. “By the time that we knew that we were doing it and by the time we got it all set up, we weren’t on the rec groups’ and (summer) camps’ schedules.”
On the docket for next summer: That 26-foot climbing wall. And the bungee attraction. Along with a spider web climb for kids. And nine inflatables for the water park, some returning and some new.
A major upgrade for lift No. 1 during the summer also opens the top of the mountain to eventual attractions like zip lines in the pines.
“It has a new braking system, new motor,” Scott said of the lift. “It has some other nifty things that aren’t going to mean much to anybody but me, but those are the highlights.”
With those upgrades, the lift can take passengers up and, in every other chair, down.
In the Shanamans’ long-term plans for spring, summer and fall: beach volleyball courts, horseshoe pits and disc golf — all on hold for now, pending funding.
But first, winter awaits.
‘GO FOR IT’ ATTITUDE
In the base lodge, Lost Valley’s ski school has moved downstairs to a larger home, and the concessions area has been remodeled; the powder blue lattice is no more.
“We just put up a nice wall and made it more real,” April said. “It’s a ski area. It needs to look like a ski area all the time.”
They plan to have a full pub menu in a rear bar that’s been renamed the Brookside Tavern and eventually also want to update that space.
She envisions it as a spot where “people actually come to have burgers or wings or open mic night — just come to Lost Valley, even if you don’t ski.”
Outside, bigger changes are underway. A 76-foot-long conveyor lift — known by its trade name, Magic Carpet, in the ski world — is being installed in the resort’s learn-to-ski area to transport beginners.
“It’s necessary in the industry,” Scott said. “We are one of the few areas that doesn’t have one.”
Construction has already started on the new three-lane tubing park, near the bottom of the mountain’s Squirrel Trail. Riders will hop into their tube and attach to a 420-foot handle-tow lift for a two-minute ride to the top, where the real fun will begin.
“It’s a steep drop at the top and then it stays a pretty consistent grade, and then the grade goes up at the end to slow them down,” Scott said. Unlike the skill needed to ski, “everybody can do it. It’ll bring a whole new audience here.”
Tubing will have lights and snow-making. They’re working on details around prices and height requirements.
The target opening date for the ski season is Dec. 16. Tubing will open a bit later, potentially Christmas week.
And, of course, that’s all weather-dependent.
Meteorologist Hawley said the official long-range forecast for November, December and January in Maine calls for “above normal temperature and equal chances of either above, below or normal precipitation.” The long-range forecast that includes February is out next week.
“We’re going into a La Nina now, which is the cooling of the waters in South Pacific,” but that shouldn’t have any particular meaning for Maine, according to Hawley.
For his part, Scott Shanaman isn’t divining any insight from forecasts or Farmers’ Almanacs.
“I look out about 72 hours, that’s as far as I look,” he said.
Early season ticket sales are down, which they said isn’t a surprise. To attract more skiers, the former owners in years past were known to slash the price to $200 for a season ticket at this time of year.
The Shanamans have an adult season pass now at $499, substantially less than Mt. Abram in Greenwood, Shawnee Peak in Bridgton and Sunday River in Newry.
“So ($200) is what everyone’s used to,” said Michelle Gosselin, who oversees the resort’s marketing. She’s had people moan to her at trade shows, “‘Oh, the season pass price . . .’ (But) do you want to own the mountain? We’re here and there’s a cost to that.”
Tracy Herrick of Auburn, a volunteer with the group Friends of Lost Valley and a ski mom whose husband and two children race there, said she’s been excited to see the changes “because there haven’t been changes there in years.”
It’s been clear, she said, that the Shanamans want to get to know the community.
“They’re awesome,” Herrick said. “Their attitude is the ‘go for it’ attitude. I do get a little nervous, like the snow last year, there was none. But they’re still there, their family is still there, so we’ll support them as long as they’re there and we’ll do whatever we can to support them.”
The Shanamans said the reception has been warm and they’ve felt the community’s enthusiasm. There is something to having the first year behind them and to feeling so much support. They have a great on-mountain team, they both said. And this coming year, they know more what to expect.
The biggest sign of their optimism for the future is sitting now in Lost Valley’s parking lot: a third chairlift.
It would be the resort’s first triple chairlift and would allow for the opening of several more trails on the mountain’s east side. Its installation is several years’ out.
“If we have a decent season this year, then lift No. 2 will get major upgrades next year,” Scott said. “We have a lot of long-range plans. After last season, the short-term is the problem.”