How many gold medals does it take to buy a gondola?

That’s a question Sugarloafers may be asking after their ski area’s ambassador, Seth Wescott, returns home this week to Carrabassett Valley from the Vancouver Olympics, where he won his second gold medal in snowboardcross.

Wescott, who lives at the base of Sugarloaf and has a contract to represent the mountain, did the unthinkable in Canada by defending the gold medal he won in Italy in the 2006 Winter Games.

And in an unpredictable and volatile sport, Wescott showed he never doubted himself by asking a press agent to have the American flag he wore in Italy at the finish. He then celebrated with it a second time, like he was ready for that moment all along.

And yet all that gold can’t buy a gondola.

A gondola, you see, is what Wescott asked the hierarchy at Sugarloaf’s parent company, Boyne Resorts, to consider building this fall to increase Sugarloaf’s stature among ski resorts.

And Maine’s only two-time Olympic gold medalist knows something about the ski industry, having competed in countries around the world for more than a decade.

Wescott promised at a televised town meeting in Carrabassett Valley that a ”signature lift” would make Sugarloaf a must-visit resort. He said it would put Sugarloaf on the world map.

Wescott seems to have done that himself.

So what of the gondola he asked for so passionately?

Unfortunately for Sugarloafers, this is where the news cameras pan to scenes of the worldwide recession. The current economic climate is holding back Boyne Resorts from giving Sugarloaf what the top ski areas in the East already have.

A new gondola would require a loan of $8 million. And Sugarloaf general manager John Diller said that’s a big chunk of change to try to pay back in uncertain times.

”Last year in the national economics, I don’t care what business you’re in, we all suffered,” Diller said. ”Certainly there are signs around the country things have improved. I don’t think we’re out of the woods yet. The same goes for the ski and real estate business.”

Steve Kircher, head of eastern operations for Boyne in Michigan, said improving snowmaking at Sugarloaf is the top priority right now.

Kircher said Wescott’s win undoubtedly will help market Sugarloaf to ski and snowboard fans nationwide. His Olympic success validates the quality of the ”Sugarloaf experience,” he said.

But Kircher fell just short of saying all that gold would inspire Boyne to build a gondola.

”Seth’s victory will bring more notoriety to the ‘Loaf as he also adds to the direction and vision of where Sugarloaf is going in the decade to come,” Kircher said.

Diller also said the Olympic exposure Sugarloaf gets this year through Wescott’s win will improve the mountain’s image.

”There’s no question,” he said. ”And it’s great to have such a nice guy promoting Sugarloaf. He gets it. It’s great that he loves it and wants to be right here. Talk about a Sugarloafer.”

But Wescott isn’t the only Sugarloafer who wants to see a gondola built. Maine winter fans who love the mountain want one, too.

Carrabassett Valley Town Manger Dave Cota said the town even helped find a low-interest funding source that Sugarloaf could get this year from a new federal stimulus program. The town did the research to help expedite the gondola project, given a new gondola would increase tourism in the region.

But Kircher said the rare loan made possible through the new Recovery Zone Facility Bond is only attractive to Boyne ”if it doesn’t consume credit capabilities of CNL (the investment firm that owns and leases Sugarloaf) or Boyne Resorts.”

Kircher insists that ramping up the snowmaking capabilities at Sugarloaf — doubling that effort while cutting the cost of its production through new technology — will make a gondola even more attractive someday.

”Once the benefits of this effort are realized, we will be in a position to support financially a major lift upgrade such as a gondola,” Kircher said.

Right now a gondola is an unknown. And Kircher said the likelihood of one only will become clear in the months ahead after Boyne finishes its 10-year plan.

Good thing Wescott’s got a four-year plan.

Maybe three golds can buy a gondola.

 

Staff Writer Deirdre Fleming can be contacted at 791-6452 or at: [email protected]