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December 18, 2012

Photo courtesy of Saddleback

Saddleback's 44-acre glade called “Casablanca” along with more than five miles of black- and double-black diamond terrain is considered the largest section of top-to-bottom expert terrain east of the Mississippi.

Saddleback owners put price on their gem

By Deirdre Fleming
dfleming@pressherald.com
Staff Writer

RANGELEY – The family that owns the Saddleback ski area has decided to sell after owning it for 10 years and investing $40 million in improvements.

The Berry family listed the property with a Portland broker a month ago. It will consider whether to take on a partner or sell Saddleback outright.

Another option is to turn the ski area into a nonprofit, an idea the family likes and hopes would continue the resort's job-creation role in Franklin County.

Saddleback's work force has increased from 66 to 250 since the family bought it in 2003, said Faith Berry, one of seven Berry children, and the family wants to ensure that the ski area will continue to create jobs in a part of Maine with limited employment opportunities.

The asking price is $12 million for 400 acres of property that includes the ski trails and lifts, the base lodge and most of the surrounding 121 units.

The Berry family will keep 7,600 of the 8,000 acres it bought 10 years ago and hopes to remain involved with the ski area in some capacity.

"Saddleback is one of the most special places in the world," said Berry. "It's beautiful and exquisite and the townspeople are wonderful. We want to try to make sure (the sale) is done right. We want it done in a way that is sensitive to the beauty and the environment."

She said, "Our hope for a buyer is someone willing to be supportive of the local area, to be involved."

Sugarloaf and Sunday River, Maine's best-known ski areas, have more trails, more lifts and more skiers.

Saddleback, with an elevation of 4,120 feet, is one of Maine's biggest mountains. The ski area offers 2,000 vertical feet of skiing and some of the toughest expert terrain in the East.

"Saddleback is one of the premier mountains in the East, just in terms of raw material, said Andy Shepard, CEO of the nonprofit Maine Winter Sports Center, which operates Nordic and alpine ski areas around Maine.

"It's a big mountain, a beautiful mountain in a spectacular setting," he said. "If someone out there is passionate about alpine skiing and has the capital to invest, there are few places that could offer the rewards of a Saddleback."

Saddleback's remote location, three hours northwest of Portland, "is its greatest asset and its greatest drawback," said Joe Malone of Malone Commercial Brokers in Portland, which has listed the property.

With Rangeley Lake nearby, "Saddleback's biggest attraction is that it is a four-season place," he said. "Of course, Saddleback is critical to (Rangeley's) four-season tourism."

Malone said any buyer or partner will have to love Saddleback the way the Berry family does.

This week, the staff was at work in every part of the ski area, getting ready for the season's opening on Saturday.

On Thursday, as snow guns blew manmade snow and groomers smoothed it out, staff members learned that the ski area was up for sale.

While opening day will be business as usual, it was a difficult time for the staff, said General Manager Chris Farmer, although there was a hint of optimism.

Berry said her family has invested $40 million in Saddleback for two new chairlifts, a $13 million renovation of the base lodge, improved snowmaking that now covers 86 percent of the terrain, and development that has nearly tripled the number of condos.

It also has introduced programs that enable youths to ski inexpensively, and has made those programs a priority.

One of the family's proudest offerings is Saddleback's "peak pass," a $149 season pass for any honor roll student in any Maine high school.

It's a deal that goes to the heart of the family's mission: to offer affordable skiing while providing jobs.

Virtually every facet of Saddleback has grown in the time the Berrys have owned it.

Its annual skier visits have increased from 15,000 to 97,000, said Farmer, who expects 130,000 visits this season.

In 2003, there were 45 condos on the mountain; today there are 121.

JoAnne Taylor, Saddleback's event director, said that when she arrived shortly after 2003, no weddings were being held. Now, Saddleback hosts an average of 16 weddings each summer in the spacious base lodge.

And for expert skiers, the terrain has expanded from a few trails to an entire section of the mountain, including the 44-acre tree-skiing area called Casablanca.

"When I got here, expert skiers would drive up, get out and ask if the 'Bronco Buster' trail was open," said Taylor. "And if it wasn't open, they'd get in their car and leave. Now, there are so many expert trails, you could spend a whole day here skiing them all."

Saddleback received the Governor's Award for Business Excellence in Maine this year. Readers of Snow magazine chose it as their favorite mountain in the Northeast.

What remains is for Saddleback to be developed a step further, Berry said, with a hotel and more condominiums.

Greg Sweetser, executive director of the Ski Maine trade association, who worked at Saddleback in the 1980s, said the prospects for a new owner or partner are exciting.

"The lodging base has been key to their growth," he said. "First, it creates a large core of skiers who own condominiums and become Saddleback's greatest advocates. Then, those units become available to rent and introduce new people to the mountain. The Berrys had a good strategy."

Eric Cianchette, a developer in Portland, is interested in looking at Saddleback, said Malone, and a few other Maine groups have expressed interest.

But among some potential ski developers in Maine, there is no interest.

Former Saddleback CEO Warren Cook tried to put a deal together when he was running Saddleback three years ago, but he isn't interested now, he said Friday from Chamonix, France.

And the western Maine mountains' newest ski operation, Kingfield-based Maine Huts and Trails, won't partner with the Berry family.

"It's quite a ways out of our mission path," said Larry Warren, founder and board chairman of Maine Huts and Trails.

Shepard, with the Maine Winter Sports Center, said a commitment with Saddleback wouldn't work for his nonprofit organization.

He said Saddleback is poised to go to another level, and an owner with capital could take it there.

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

dfleming@pressherald.com

Twitter: Flemingpph



Photo courtesy of Saddleback

The $13 million renovated lodge was one of many upgrades the Berry family spent during their 10-year ownership of Saddleback. They put the ski area up for sale and will begin looking for a buyer outside Maine next week.

2004 file photo/The Associated Press

A Nov. 26, 2004, photo of construction on the ski lodge at the Saddleback ski resort.



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