RANGELEY — Ask Saddleback skiers why they love Maine’s third-largest ski area, and you typically hear things like old school, laid back and small-town. So when Saddleback’s prospective new owner was announced at a news conference Wednesday as someone who wanted to turn the western Maine ski mountain into “the premier ski resort in North America,” it gave some locals and Saddleback fans pause.

To be sure, today Rangeley, which sits below Saddleback Mountain beside the Rangeley lakes, is full of locals, avid skiers and business owners who are thrilled the beloved ski area that has been closed for two years may reopen again if a sale is completed this summer. But will it retain its charm and that outback feel that sets it apart from Maine’s other two big ski areas: Sunday River and Sugarloaf, both of which are run by a conglomerate?

Many wonder, and some worry.

“I think it’s great for the region and great for the state of Maine if they can do that and still keep the small-town feel of the mountain, then I’m all for it,” said Russ Brooks of Rangeley Plantation.

“They need a return on their investment, but it needs to be done in a way that makes sense. It needs to be profitable, but it doesn’t need to make billions. I don’t see a gondola from downtown Rangeley running up the mountain. I don’t see it. It doesn’t need to be like Mammoth Mountain (In California).”

Russ Brooks of Rangeley Plantation worries Saddleback’s prospective owners will develop the resort in a way that won’t be in keeping with the warmth and welcome of the wilderness region. Staff photo by Deirdre Fleming

On Wednesday, Sebastian Monsour of Brisbane, Australia, the CEO of the Majella Group, was introduced by Saddleback owners Bill and Irene Berry as the prospective buyer who would sign a purchase agreement later this summer. A purchase price for the ski area and resort was not disclosed.

Majella is an Australian-based company that invests in retail and residential properties, media, technology, consulting and financial services. The group has offices in the United States, the Philippines, the United Arab Emeritas, Bahrain and China.

Saddleback would be its first ski resort.

The Berrys purchased the ski area and 8,000 acres around the mountain in 2003 and then invested $40 million into Saddleback, including into a new base lodge, two quad chairlifts and new snowmaking equipment.

Then in July, 2015, the Berrys announced they needed to secure $3 million to replace one of the four chair lifts (the mountain has five) or they would be forced to close the resort. When efforts to secure financing failed they said they were in negotiations with a buyer. But a sale never materialized and the resort stayed closed t.

The 4,120-foot ski mountain known for its far-reaching lake views and rugged glade trails honors the region’s fly fishing heritage with trail names such as Gray Ghost, Peach’s Peril, and Blue Devil. It’s a nod to the fact Rangeley’s trout and salmon fisheries made it a world-class outdoor destination 150 years ago.

The resort, which first opened in 1960, and the surrounding forestland covers 6,337 acres.

HOPEFUL FOR THE FUTURE

In the days after the news of a future sale, many locals and Saddleback regulars expressed relief the ski area will open and gain much-needed capital improvements, which Monsour promised. But even locals who smiled at the news said they hoped Saddleback wouldn’t lose its unique backwoods vibe.

“I think it’s great. Not only will they draw more people to the mountain, they’ll make the mountain better with hotels and restaurants,” said Xavier Mills, a third-generation Saddleback skier who was boating with his grandfather.

But Mills quickly added, he loved Saddleback for its wild and warm mountain style.

“Rangeley is very close-knit,” Mills said. “Everyone helps everyone else. People are very helpful, very kind.”

At one point in his presentation, Monsour connected with locals when he said his late mother fell in love with the area. Monsour teared up as he explained he wanted to make Saddleback something special for her. It resonated with locals in Rangeley.

“I want it to look like it’s part of Rangeley,” said Domenic Pono, who owns the auto repair shop in town.

“By his presentation, I think he is kind of here to help. He fell in love with the area, too. His mother loved Saddleback. He got choked up when he talked about her. That shows emotion. If he is true to what he’s saying, it made me feel that he understands Rangeley.”

Pono moved to Rangeley in 2013 after discovering it in 2000. He opened Dom’s Auto and Jeep Repair on Main Street. And when he’s not repairing cars he sits out front with his three Jack Russell terriers, but that’s not often.

The phone at Dom’s Auto rings straight to Pono’s cellphone. The former Alaska resident believes in hard work, customer service, and community. These are the things he wants to see continue at Saddleback.

“Anyone who comes here once, comes back because of the natural beauty,” Pono said. “When I first came over that mountain range and looked out on that view, I was home. I found my place.

“I like that they’ll have Maine people run it. Those people realize the needs of the community. If you had people from California run it, they wouldn’t understand. It sounds like they will be true to the spirit of Saddleback.”

Rangeley artist Claudia Comstock says if Saddleback is overdeveloped by a new owner, it would lose its charm and draw to the laid-back wilderness region. Staff photo by Deirdre Fleming


 

Others in town worry.

Artist Claudia Comstock carved the welcome signs that greet visitors to Rangeley on all three roads leading into town. She also runs sled dog trips and 30 years ago she taught skiing at Saddleback.

Comstock said the people of Rangeley are resilient and rooted to the harsh northern climate. Many work three to four jobs for the joy of living in this wilderness setting. She said keeping Rangeley a sleepy mountain retreat is paramount to maintaining the region’s draw.

“I don’t want to see it turn into a Vail or an Aspen. Then it ends up excluding a lot of people,” said Comstock as she sat at her booth at the farmers market.

“I like Rangeley the way it is. I’m excited to have the mountain open again. Business has been down in town as a result. But I don’t want to see it get so damn big. I’d like to see a happy medium. I’d like to see it thrive.”

Across the town green, Elizabeth MacDonald of Rangeley, who once worked at the Saddleback ticket counter for 20 years, shared similar thoughts.

“I think if it gets too big, it could lose its identity,” MacDonald said.

Meanwhile, skiers elsewhere in Maine wonder if Saddleback may need to lose some of its charm to gain a future. The thought saddened a number of season pass holders, but they said this may be inevitable.

“I think the amount of money that will be invested in the purchase and to do necessary upgrades, they have no doubt in their mind they’ve got to make it a huge entity,” said Cindy Cogswell of Gray. “For the amount of money it will take to run it, they won’t operate it like small-town Saddleback. It would be wonderful if it could stay like it is. But you don’t buy investment property to not make money.”

And Jon Beede of Bowdoinham, who has skied Saddleback for 25 years and “tromped around the woods and mountains of Maine” all his life, said Saddlback’s family atmosphere and affordability made it a very special place. But Beede said the worst thing that could happen now would be for it to stay closed.

“It’s now foreign-owned, which is a little sad,” Beede said. “But at the same time the worst thing would be to have it shuttered up and not being utilized. It’s such a resource and it’s so beautiful and such a wonderful mountain. I’m thrilled.”

Deirdre Fleming can be contacted at 791-6452 or at:

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