SANDY RIVER PLANTATION — On a cold, windy Tuesday morning in Sandy River Plantation, Saddleback Mountain was back in business.

The embattled ski area fired up its lifts for passholders, a first in more than five years of stalled operations after its former owners abruptly closed the mountain in 2015.

Even with COVID-19 still looming, Joseph Roach, town manager in nearby Rangeley, said it was hard not to feel optimistic.

“I definitely feel the energy from the reopening,” Roach said Tuesday. “There’s definitely a sense of optimism in the town.”

Andy Shepard, Saddleback’s general manager, agreed.

“This has meant so much to so many people for so long,” Shepard said.

In January, Boston-based Arctaris Impact Fund bought Saddleback’s 6,400 acres from the Berry family for $6.5 million.

Since the purchase, the area has had a facelift, beginning with a much-needed, $7.5 million replacement of the 1963 Rangeley double chairlift, which was infamous among local skiers for its long lines and 11-minute ride to the summit.

The new lift, a quad, has shortened that ride to a tad more than four minutes, according to Shepard.

The base lodge has also been updated and its capacity tripled, although skiers during the coronavirus pandemic are encouraged to use their vehicles to “boot up.”

COVID-19, of course, presents a major obstacle on the path to profitability. But having done most of the base lodge improvements since the start of the pandemic, Shepard said Saddleback was able to modify plans and make greater health and safety upgrades.

The lodge’s new heating, ventilation and air-conditioning system, for example, turns air over three times faster than its predecessor, according to Shepard, and touchless sinks and toilets at the lodge’s updated bathrooms slow the spread of germs.

Skiers and snowboarders head down a trail on a windy, cold opening day Tuesday at Saddleback Mountain in Sandy River Plantation, near Rangeley. Daryn Slover/Sun Journal Buy this Photo

Other updates include an enlarged kitchen, an additional bathroom, expanded capacity on the third floor of the lodge and 86 new snowmakers.

“COVID is gonna be the democratization of skiing this year,” Shepard said. “People are going to be looking to get away from crowds. Being outdoors in an alpine ski area is a great way to do that. There’s not a lot of risk associated with being outside.”

The ski area’s new investors have also been in talks with the town about installing a solar farm to allow Saddleback to generate its own electricity as part of its long-range economic sustainability plan.

The solar array and a proposed, 6,000-square-foot, midmountain lodge have been met with skepticism by members of the Maine Appalachian Trail Club and Maine Audubon, who question the impact on views and local bird populations.

RANGELEY GETS ITS ‘ENGINE’ BACK

The Arctaris Impact Fund’s mission is “to invest in economically distressed communities across the country,” according to the Saddleback website. In this case, that means the Rangeley Lakes region.

Such investor interest and involvement have become unfamiliar to ski towns across the country after a succession of hill closures soured public opinion of buyouts.

“There’s a lot more on our plate than just getting the mountain up and running. That’s not enough,” Shepard said. “We have to do it in a way that allows the mountain to be an engine for the region that helps solve some other problems.”

Affordable housing? Saddleback has a task force for that.

Year-round benefits for employees? Saddleback has a task force for that, too.

The next step is to figure out how to implement some of those lofty goals.

“Eight months into the (task force) project, we have a good grasp of the questions,” Shepard said. “Now, its winding those down to an answer.”

Reese McFarland of Cape Elizabeth, second from left, gives Connor Thoreck a fist bump Tuesday as they celebrate the opening of Saddleback Mountain in Sandy River Plantation, near Rangeley. Griffin Thoreck, left, and Owen Thoreck, right, said the four were Saddleback diehards before the mountain closed five years ago. Daryn Slover/Sun Journal Buy this Photo

But the bigger question is whether or not the area is in need of the economic support offered by Arctaris.

“I think the answer is yes,” Roach said. “The reason I say it’s yes is that (the investment) will continue to improve the outdoor experience in Rangeley. Saddleback is part of the Rangeley region’s identity. Having that infusion of support is really rounding things out for us.”

Rangeley and its surrounding plantations had already been investing in infrastructure improvements to supplement Saddleback’s absence, according to Roach. The town has invested about $5 million in road bonds over the past five years, and projects in the works include an overlook sidewalk project, a tax increment financing district downtown to fund infrastructure projects and an initiative to improve the area’s broadband internet connection, which the Board of Selectmen is still discussing.

“It’s a really exciting time to be in Rangeley,” Roach said.

The resort had six trails and three lifts open Tuesday, after groomers manicured a light dusting of real snow and a crush of snowmaker powder, according to the mountain’s first snow report in half a decade. Two lifts opened at 9 a.m. to a midsize crowd of skiers and snowboarders.

The resort is open seven days a week, from 8:30 a.m. to 3:50 p.m.

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