- By CLARKE CANFIELD

The Associated Press

PORTLAND – The search is on for a new owner of a ski mountain in western Maine.

The Maine Winter Sports Center, a nonprofit based in Caribou that promotes outdoor activities and healthy living in rural areas, recently announced it is closing Black Mountain in Rumford after townspeople voted against appropriating $51,000 for the ski area.

Supporters and the sports center are hopeful they can find a nonprofit organization, a group of investors or somebody else committed to keeping the mountain open. In the past decade, the sports center has invested about $9 million in the ski area.

The mountain has launched a fundraising campaign to show any prospective owner that there’s community support behind it, said Roger Arsenault, chairman of the Black Mountain board of directors. Within 48 hours of announcing it was closing, Black Mountain received about $25,000 in contributions and commitments, he said.

“It touches so many people, and it’s overwhelming to think we don’t have anything,” Arsenault said. “But I’m optimistic we’re going to work things out.”

Black Mountain opened in 1960, and the sports center took it over in 2003.

With funding from the Libra Foundation philanthropic organization, the sports center has pumped about $9 million into the resort in the past decade, said Andy Shepard, the center’s president and CEO.

A decade ago, Black Mountain had a 470-foot vertical drop of ski terrain, one T-bar, a 40-year-old lodge with toilets that regularly backed up and muddy parking lots, he said. Now, it has a 1,400-foot vertical drop, a new snowmaking system, a new lodge, two new chairlifts, lights and paved parking lots.

In 2011 and 2012, the mountain hosted the U.S. Cross Country Ski Championships on its more than 10 miles of Nordic ski trails.

Every year since the sports center assumed ownership of the mountain, townspeople have voted to appropriate about $50,000 of taxpayer money toward its operations. But at this year’s June 11 election, they rejected the appropriation request by a vote of 939-497.

Voters overwhelmingly rejected the appropriation this year because of widespread opposition to Rumford’s proposed town budget — which included funds to Black Mountain — given the uncertainty about the local paper mill, whose owner went through bankruptcy reorganization last year, Arsenault said. There was also the threat of cutbacks or the elimination of revenue-sharing funds the town receives from the state, he added. Voters approved only four of 24 appropriation requests.

The lack of support from voters was a major reason, but not the only one, the sports center decided to close the mountain, said Shepard.

Shepard said he’s actively “pursuing a transition” to find a new owner. “There’s been too much progress here, and it would be a tragedy for it to end,” Shepard said.

The mountain provides an economic boost for Rumford, employing about 65 people each winter, Arsenault said. It buys its concessions, equipment, fuel and other needs locally, and skiers from outside town eat at local restaurants and make purchases at local stores, he said. Hundreds of people filled hotel rooms and restaurants in Rumford and the surrounding area for the cross-county championships.