Thursday, April 24, 2014
Two weeks ago, Bigrock Mountain in Aroostook County lost its investor, the nonprofit Libra Foundation, which had infused more than $6 million in the ski area. But to assume the loss of funding from the Libra Foundation (the financial arm behind the Maine Winter Sports Center) spells trouble for Bigrock is shortsighted.
Certainly it's easy to blame the split on tough economic times, since Saddleback Mountain in Rangeley went up for sale last fall, Squaw Mountain in Greenville struggled to open in February and Black Mountain in Rumford (another MWSC endeavor) also lost its Libra Foundation funding this spring.
But in the big picture the decision by the Libra Foundation to cut Bigrock loose provides the ski area's patrons with an opportunity. And what happens next may inform and inspire the ski industry.
Bigrock, like Black Mountain, has been a unique model -- now it may be in a position to serve as a useful blueprint for small community ski areas.
Black Mountain in western Maine and Bigrock in Aroostook County together received nearly $13 million worth of upgrades from the Libra Foundation during the past 10 years. Then with upgrades and renovations complete, both switched to a one-price-for-all business model, offering skiers and snowboarders just $15 lift tickets this past winter. And business grew.
Skiers at both mountains nearly quadrupled, said Andy Shepard, executive director of the Maine Winter Sports Center.
But the Libra Foundation never intended to stick with the two Alpine areas, Shepard said. And now, he added, seemed the right time to see if the two small ski areas can stand alone with the help of their communities.
That is exactly what is happening in Rumford at Black Mountain.
In the past two months locals and business leaders there formed a nonprofit and raised $185,000 of the $200,000 needed to open the mountain and fund a reserve account, Shepard said.
So the MWSC donated the ski area with its $6 million worth of upgrades to those folks in Rumford ... just like that.
Shepard thinks if they stick with the $15 lift tickets, Black Mountain will stay busy and thrive.
"I think they have some fund-raising horsepower behind them, and they can make the mountain sustainable for generations to come. My hope is the same will happen at Bigrock," Shepard said.
Bigrock also needs to raise about $200,000 to open this winter and have the hope of remaining economic sustainable. But in Presque Isle last week, locals answered the call.
Bigrock draws from a vast area that stretches from the Canadian Maritimes to Bangor. And within that area, Shepard said, a group made up of business leaders has formed and intends to launch a nonprofit that would run Bigrock.
When those ski fans in northern Maine prove that fundraising goal is within reach, Shepard said the MWSC will donate the mountain to the new nonprofit. And a new era of Alpine enthusiasm will play out in The County.
"What I know about Aroostook County, when things matter and when it involves the community, they are capable of remarkable things. I hope we see that is the case very soon," Shepard said.
Bigrock General Manager Bill Getman said that storyline will play out.
A Bigrock friends group raised $15,000 in four days and is determined to double that, Getman said. And more fundraising is expected in short order.
"The other $120,000 will be spearhead by a group that has not yet come forward. They are committed to put some money into the pot. It's an exciting thing. These guys are looking long-term," Getman said.
Shepard is not surprised. But he believes the community cavalry makes sense. It's what existed in the heyday of New England skiing.
"The thing with smaller communities, they need to fully engage the community. And when you think back to the 50s, and 60s, and 70s, that is exactly what it was like," he said.
It could be the model that saves small downhill ski areas today: A nonprofit or company infuses capital for needed upgrades, and the community takes ownership, raises money, recruits volunteers and runs the hill.
Greg Sweetser, executive director at Ski Maine, said that model is viable in a state like ours.
"For Black Mountain, things are working very well. Now that it has all the improvements, the locals can run with it. The same with Bigrock. All the major improvements are out of the way. They can really focus on building the business," Sweetser said.
Such tactics to revitalize, reinvent and run ski areas are just part and parcel of the big ski love across Maine.
From Titcomb Mountain in Farmington to the town-owned Camden Snow Bowl on the coast, community-run or community-owned ski areas have proven successful, Sweetser said.
"Snow is important, and programs, but it has to have the community behind it. And it's really happening at community areas in Maine," Sweetser said.
Deirdre Fleming can be contacted at 791-6452 or at: