Friday, April 18, 2014
RUMFORD — Probably no other Maine ski area will be looking at the bottom line this winter like Black Mountain, because this season will determine its future, mountain officials say.
Whether this season is uplifting or downhill all the way has yet to be determined, but all agree it’s a make-or-break winter for Black Mountain, now a community-run ski area struggling to remain profitable in the face of many challenges.
Photos by Shawn Patrick Ouellette/Staff Photographer
The Paquette family, Amanda and Ian and 2-year-old Grace, can enjoy Black Mountain for much less than the price of one ticket elsewhere.
But don’t tell that to the skiers, who don’t seem to notice.
“You can take a family of five here for the price of one lift ticket at (bigger mountains),” said Brad LaRoche of Searsmont, who was out skiing with his buddies two weeks ago.
“This is an undiscovered gem in Maine. But we shouldn’t be telling you about it because then you’ll write about it,” spouted LaRoche’s snowboarding buddy Chris Brinn.
Six months after the Maine Winter Sports Center pulled out of the Black Mountain operation, the snowmaking is in full swing, Nordic ski races are going off, and live music events are raging. And, best of all, those $15 lift tickets are still in place.
But those running the mountain – who are different than those making the decisions last year – are hoping they can keep this little gem around.
Last summer, the Maine Winter Sports Center left Black Mountain after the Libra Foundation, the nonprofit that funds the center’s work, stopped funding the small ski area that looks out on the Androscoggin River and the mill towers of Rumford.
After sinking $6 million into the mountain, the folks at the MWSC decided to let the townspeople take over, a year after putting in place a possible formula for success: the rare $15 lift ticket. Last year, as a result of the low-priced ticket, skier visits at the mountain nearly quadrupled, according to the MWSC.
Today, Black Mountain skiers say the low-price ticket is a definite draw. And the people of Rumford, who last summer raised $195,000 in two months to save the operation, are rallying together to keep it going.
Still, the future is uncertain, officials say.
“We were hoping we’d pick up where we left off last year, and we did. We’re excited. We are still seeing a lot of new families. But we need to have everything go right,” said Roger Arsenault, a board member at Black Mountain, which is now a nonprofit owned by the town.
“I hate to say it, but we may not open if we can’t end up being profitable.”
The new nonprofit employs three full-time workers and 65 seasonal staff and gets a lift from 30 volunteers and 45 members of the Chisholm Ski Club.
An early snowfall helped jump-start the winter and skier visits were on par with last year, Arsenault said. But rain in January took away the natural snow. And while the snowmakers at the mountain turned the Arctic cold temperatures into artificial snow and perfect skiing conditions, skier stayed away, Arsenault said.
Now Black Mountain needs some serious buzz around the hill and lodge during February school vacation. And March could make or break Black Mountain’s future.
The people of Rumford are not giving up.
Robert McPherson learned to ski at Black Mountain three years ago. Now a junior at Mountain Valley High School, he teaches skiing at the mountain. It’s his first job in a sport he just picked up, and McPherson still feels fierce loyalty to his home mountain.
“I think it’s better the Maine Winter Sports Center left because now we don’t have to go by their rules,” McPherson said. “We don’t have to take their money. We can make our own money and keep it here. It’s a great mountain to learn on. It’s got the easiest trails and it has glades. I ski it all.”
One decision the townspeople made since the MWSC left town was to make the $15 deal good for day and night skiing. So rather than paying for a lift ticket from 9 a.m. to 4 p.m. and another from 6 p.m. to 9 p.m., one $15 ticket pays for both.
“That’s absolutely unheard of,” said marketing director Paige Carter.
But local love and unlikely pricing aside, Black Mountain still needs to stay in the black this winter.
The mountain’s board of directors is looking at creating an annual appeal, similar to the fundraising efforts done by other nonprofit organizations across Maine.
Only time will tell if the mountain remains open, Arsenault said.
“It’s all on us,” Arsenault said. “We’re pretty excited. Everything was off to a positive start this winter. But we still have to deal with the bottom line.”
Staff Writer Deirdre Fleming can be reached at 791-6452 or at:
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Black Mountain’s demise would be felt by, among others, the Herr family of Yarmouth, from left Emmett, Sophie and Levi.
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The road from here is most uncertain for Black Mountain, one year after the nonprofit Libra Foundation withdrew its funding.