RANGELEY — It has been five months since the residents of Rangeley have heard any communication on the status of Saddleback ski resort.

In that time the town in western Franklin County has closed out what locals are calling the worst winter in recent memory. With below average snow totals keeping the normal rush of snowmobilers at bay and Saddleback ski area not opening, resulting in the loss of skiers flocking to the region, Rangeley — known for its year round outdoor attractions — waited for the seasons to change.

While questions about the future of Saddleback are still abundant in daily conversations, business owners are focusing on the start of their summer tourism season, which many say looks like it may be a prosperous one.

“You have to enjoy the good times for what they are,” said Sue Damm, who owns Rangeley Regional Sport Shop with her husband, Bret. “Plus you’re so busy that you don’t have too much time to ponder what is or isn’t happening, but of course we’re all still wondering in the back of our minds.”

The energy in Rangeley on Thursday was a stark contrast to the condition of the town over the winter. Cottages that were vacant in late March — normally when snowmobilers and skiers flock to the area — have come to life with blooming flower boxes and bright kayaks and canoes strewn in the yards.

A steady stream of cars with out-of-state plates flowed through Rangeley’s downtown, as visitors popped in and out of storefronts with children and shopping bags in tow.

STRONG START TO SUMMER

The Fourth of July typically marks the official start to the summer tourism season. Damm, who has lived in Rangeley for 10 years, said traffic in town for the holiday weekend was up from previous years.

She said on July 2 and 3 “the town was absolutely packed with people, and I think overall once the summer season took off the town has had good traffic. I think restaurants and motels are all doing much better. Just from driving by, it looks like they’ve got a lot of folks in them.”

Across town from Damm’s shop, Linda Dexter, owner of Ecopelagicon Nature Store, also was optimistic about the start of summer. Dexter said it was one of the better Fourth of July weekends she’s seen in the 23 years she has owned and operated her shop, which also offers kayak and paddleboard rentals.

“Summer is off to a great start. (The holiday weekend) was a good kick-start for the summer,” Dexter said. “We had a great weekend. It was awesome. Very busy with people out in kayaks and paddleboards.”

Both Dexter and Damm said a number of things played into the strong holiday weekend. The nice weather was one factor and they said the fact the holiday fell on a Monday meant there was more time for weekend visitors to stick around town. But they’ve also heard from customers who are seasonal visitors, but stayed away over the winter and were eager to make the summer trip.

“You’ve got camp owners that are itching to get up here because they didn’t get up here over the winter,” Dexter said.

Damm agreed. “I’ve had some customers tell me that everyone was so bored all winter that they were going crazy,” she said. “They couldn’t take a fun vacation in the winter time … they’re going to get one in the summer instead.”

Aside from shops, motels and rental businesses are also seeing a boom in business and expect that trend to continue throughout the summer. James Eastlack, of Morton and Furbish Real Estate, said the firm’s cabin and cottage rentals have been “doing very well and the summer looks to be strong.”

Joey Morton, who owns Town and Lake Motel and Cottages, said his business in the center of downtown Rangeley has been booked the last two weekends, even for the last weekend of June, which Morton said is typically slow.

“Business has been really strong,” Morton said. “July and August look pretty well booked.”

SADDLEBACK QUESTIONS REMAIN

Despite a boom in summer business, when pressed with questions of whether Rangeley could handle another winter like the past one, business owners say they hope they won’t have to find out.

“That was the worst winter we will ever see,” Morton said. “I am hopefully confident about that.”

Saddleback ski resort and snowmobiling are the two draws for people who come to Rangeley in the winter.

Snowmobilers stayed away because there was so little snow, but Morton said he expects snowmobilers will be eager to hit the trails next winter.

However, people are far less certain about the future of Saddleback.

Saddleback’s owners, Bill and Irene Berry, announced last July that Maine’s third-largest ski area would not open for the 2015-16 season unless they could secure $3 million in financing to replace the Rangeley Double Chairlift with a four-person lift. In September, they said they had exhausted all financing options and were trying to secure a buyer for the mountain.

The ski resort has relied on its Facebook page as its sole means of communicating updates on the possible sale of the mountain. Over the winter, updates on the page said the Berrys were in negotiations with a buyer who had the intention of opening the mountain for the season. But winter began and the months slipped by and it didn’t open. Then in a Feb. 8 post, Saddleback announced it would not be open for February school vacation. That was the last update on the page.

Saddleback General Manager Chris Farmer told the Morning Sentinel this week that there is nothing to announce on the future of the mountain. He said the Facebook page will be updated when there is something to report.

While the long stretch of silence from Saddleback leaves many questions, Morton said it’s better than the false hope generated by the updates this past winter.

“Maybe silence is golden. Maybe things are going on right now,” Morton said. “I don’t know if it’s worse not hearing something or worse if they say, ‘You’re going to hear something next Tuesday.’… That gets your hopes up.”

Questions about Saddleback are also on the minds of summer tourists, who have been asking business owners what the status of the mountain is.

“We still get questions on it. Probably every week someone comes in and asks me, ‘Hey, I hear Saddleback wasn’t open. What do you think is going to happen?'” Damm said.

Dexter and Morton said they’ve received countless questions about the mountain, but with summer picking up, business owners are too busy to worry about the next season. Still, they are holding out hope in the back of their minds that an update will come before summer is over.

“They’re focused on summer and they’re focused on the positives,” Dexter said. “We’ve got our fingers crossed that something will happen. You pretty much need to know something is going to happen by the end of summer.”

Eastlack said the real estate market is holding strong, and despite uncertainty about the mountain, there are a lot of buyers seeking property, though prices are lower than he would like to see.

He said the typical Rangeley buyer is seeking a second home and is thinking long-term, so buyers have the confidence the mountain will open.

It’s a confidence he said he shares.

“If we talk in September or October and the mountain has not provided any update, I will be concerned,” he said.

Lauren Abbate — 861-9252

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Twitter: @Lauren_M_Abbate