Like the rest of you, while Saddleback was closed and it’s future in doubt, I had this unquenchable thirst for any and all news that related to Saddleback. Most of that I got by joining the Facebook Group called “Friends of Saddleback Mountain”. Which was pretty much just a bunch of people like me who, with good intentions, have lived off whispers and rumors for the last 4-5 years.

But our long drawn out Saddleback nightmare has finally come to an end, right??

Once Arctaris closed the deal last Friday, I figured I’d be all set and this desire for constant status updates would stop. But it only seemed to get worse, which actually happens fairly regularly with most of the things I obsess over (just ask my wife). I wanted to know anything and everything about how the deal got done, and even more urgently, what are the next steps they will be taking to get our beloved mountain back open later this year.

So, being an occasional writer of mindless trivial articles about my adventures in the Rangeley Region, I figured I could maybe disguise myself as a reporter for the Highlander and get me an exclusive conversation with the new owners. So, posing as a journalist, I reached out to Wolfe Tone at Saddleback Mountain Foundation to see if he had contact info. for Andy Shepard, new General Manager of Saddleback Mountain.

And by God, he fell for it and gave it to me.

Just kidding Wolfe, I really am a journalist for the Highlander!

They don’t pay me much (like, actually, zero… they pay me zero), but I am definitely a Highlander journalist!!!

So anyway, I called Andy and we talked and talked and talked. It was great. I got all kinds of scoops. And then I figured if I ever wanted Stephanie to let me publish another one of my trivial adventure columns, that I better write down what I learned and get it to her as an article.

So what follows is the first investigative report in my new career as a top notch journalist, aka “the stuff below is what Andy told me”…

So, you see, back before Saddleback closed five years ago, the Berry’s reached out to Andy Shepard, who at the time was operating the Maine Winter Sports Center. They told him they were going to have to close the mountain and hoped that perhaps, as the Center had done with Black Mountain, and some Nordic Centers up in the County, that possibly they could work their magic, purchase Saddleback, and keep the lifts running.

At the time, Andy and his son crunched the numbers, and found they could make it work, but that it would take a large capital investment upfront, and they just didn’t have that kind of money available to them. So the idea died. At least for a while…

Fast forward to a couple of years ago. We had been through the whole Majella debacle, and things were looking pretty grim. Arctaris was beginning to look at the possibility of purchasing it, but only if it were designated an “Opportunity Zone” by the State, which it was not. So that idea died. At least for a while…

Andy and others soon would reach out to Arctaris, asking them, “Hey, we know Opportunity Zones are gone, but how else can we get this done?”

So the Arctaris Impact Fund, and Jonathan Tower, started looking at how else they could make a Saddleback purchase work. There were New Market Tax Credits that had become available. Andy stressed in our conversation how relentless Jonathan was in pursuing ways to make this deal work, and how he just basically refused to give up on it.

They partnered with philanthropists, the State, small donors, and leveraged programs designed to have a positive economic impact on small rural communities. And in the end, they got it done.

As I called Andy, he was on his way to a Ski Show in Killington VT. He was thrilled to finally be going, no longer as someone representing the people who were hoping to own Saddleback, but representing the people who DO own Saddleback. There will be lift manufacturers there, snow making manufacturers there, you know, the kinds of people who are going to sell them all that shiny new stuff that’s going to be installed at our beloved Saddleback this summer…

Andy’s experience goes way back. In 2003 he was part of the effort that revived Black Mountain in Rumford, which went from 470 vertical feet to 1400, from a single antiquated T bar to a brand new quad all the way to the summit, a new beginner lift, 4 paved parking lots, 2 restaurants, 3 museums, and 2 fireplaces. And it has now been turned back over to the community as a non-profit, and is still going strong. But it needed a new business model in order to survive, and Andy helped create that.

And now, Saddleback has a new owner, and a new business model. And Andy and his team are ready to help turn that plan into a reality. For all of us.

There are striking similarities between Black and Saddleback. Similar culture and vibe. The same values, of being proud of what you have in the community, being a laid back, friendly, skier’s mountain. And that is what Andy promises Saddleback will continue to be.

But that being said, Andy has talked to a lot of locals, asking them what they loved about Saddleback, what they want Saddleback to be. They say they love the culture, they don’t want that to change, that they loved it just the way it was. So, often he asks them “what was it specifically that you loved about it…”

And many times they would say…

“Well, we loved that we had the mountain all to ourselves…”

His response: “Well, you realize that has to change, right???”

He talked often about the business model. I mean, let’s get real folks, if a place doesn’t make money, it doesn’t stay open. Period. End of story. (that’s me talking, not Andy)

But he knows that people who visit Saddleback need space, they don’t want to feel crowded, they don’t want to wait around in long lines. And all that is in their business model.

He talked about people going upstairs to the restaurant 5 years ago, seeing a wall of people, and turning around and leaving. About people ordering food in standing room only conditions, only to be unable to be found when the food arrived.

Andy told me that in year 2 or 3, when they get to 120,000 visitors, they would need to add capacity, likely by putting a restaurant at the top of the Rangeley chair, which would take the pressure off the main lodge.

There are many things in the business model, but the way he said business models play out is that you press the go button, and all sorts of things happen that you may or may not have anticipated. So the plan will forever be a work in progress.

A couple of things are certain. A high speed detachable quad in place of the Rangeley chair. That takes you from an 11 minute ride to a 4 minute ride, and gets 2400 people up there in an hour, instead of 750. The Sandy is pretty sure to become a quad. After that, they can see what that does to skier flow, and that can drive the location of a 5th lift, or mean a possible relocation of the Cupsuptic T.

I had other questions regarding timelines. He responded that there is no doubt that all trails, many of which are covered in small tree growth, will be cleared and ready for December 2020. “Jimmy and Jared have been planning this for the last 5 years, they know exactly what needs to be done, and have a plan for doing it.”

A Master Plan will be developed for the future of the trail system this year, and work may start on some of those trails, but the majority of development would happen starting in the Spring of 2021. So stay tuned for what a future ski map of trails and lifts at a new Saddleback might look like.

I have heard a lot of people ask about snowmobiling, and the possibility of trail access to the base lodge, so I asked about that. Andy was hesitant on that front, noting that nationally snowmobiles and ski areas have traditionally not mixed well, with things such as a few bad apples not being able to resist the urge to ride the ski trails after hours. And that can be a real safety concern with nighttime grooming operations and the poor visibility that creates for equipment operators, not to mention damage to the groomed trails. A potential tragedy between a snowmobile and a groomer didn’t seem to be something he was anxious to contemplate. But he didn’t rule out talking with the local clubs about some type of access in the future either, if they wanted to have that conversation.

As far as non-winter development, Andy and his crew envision weddings, fat tire mountain biking in the summer of 2021, a mountain coaster, and leaf peeper lift rides. All of that is important if you want to start thinking of something like a hotel becoming economically feasible.

He spoke glowingly of the team that has been assembled, and constantly deferred credit to everyone other than himself. Greg Andrews, the new CFO. Jimmy Quimby and Jared Emerson, co-Mountain Managers, Bruce Lancaster, Facilities Manager. Coming back from places around the country to take on new leadership roles at their beloved Saddleback.

Andy said there is no way that the mountain won’t continue to have the same vibe and culture that it has in the past. These guys grew up in that culture and they understand and value what makes Saddleback special.

Oh ya, I almost forgot, one more really awesome thing. They are searching for 25 acres on their new 6400 acre lot to build a solar farm. Enough energy produced to run the entire mountain. I think that’s pretty cool. And personally, I’ll take that any day, especially if it means I don’t have to be looking at industrial wind turbines on top of our beautiful mountains.

So, that pretty much sums up what Andy told me on his way to Killington. Thank you Andy for spending an hour on the phone with me, much appreciated!

On a side note, as we often do, the wife and I stopped into Sarges on our way to camp last Friday for a bite and a brew, and while we were there, news of the closing had just been made public. I think Crystal Sargent summed it up best at that moment, when she asked everyone there to raise their glasses in a toast to the news, and then shouted out…

“Hey everyone. We got our mountain back!!!!”

Stephanie Chu-O’Neil

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