December 1, 2013

John Christie: An avalanche of support for Camden Snow Bowl

Local voters invest in its sustainability.

In what Town Manager Pat Finnegan called “an incredible vote of support,” nearly 85 percent of the voters on Nov. 5 in Camden approved a $2 million bond issue to help fund lift, trail and snowmaking improvements at the Camden Snow Bowl, as well as new lodge construction at the municipally owned four-season recreation area.

click image to enlarge

The Camden Snow Bowl is a rare jewel – a ski area with views of the ocean, but that makes it vulnerable to a host of seasonal uncertainties. Plans are in the works to ensure snow cover and better base amenities.

John Christie Photo

The operative word is “help,” as the total project, with work to commence in the summer of 2014, is estimated to cost some $6.5 million, with the $4.5 million difference already committed in private funds as a result of the “steadfast commitment, boundless energy and dogged determination,” in Finnegan’s words, of the residents comprising the capital campaign committee of the Ragged Mountain Recreation Area Foundation.

The foundation and a redevelopment committee formed by the town have been working tirelessly over the past five years to formulate a long-range plan for the redevelopment of the Snow Bowl, secure quotes for the various components of the project, educate the citizenry regarding not only the plans but the current and potential economic impact of the facility, and, most daunting of all, secure commitments for the private funds that were essential to move this unique public/private partnership forward.

On Nov. 5, Camden voters essentially endorsed the project, agreed to accept the private funds, and appropriated the town’s share of the cost of the undertaking. To meet the town’s commitment, the vote authorized the town treasurer and chair of the select board to issue general obligation securities in an aggregate principal amount not to exceed $2 million. In fact, the town’s share of the cost will be limited to the lesser of 30 percent of the actual cost of the project or $2 million, which ensures that a minimum of 70 percent of the entire redevelopment will be funded by donations.

It is estimated that the cost to Camden taxpayers will average $110,000 in annual interest payments for 30 years on bonds to be issued by the Maine Municipal Bond Bank.

An independent economic impact study revealed that the Snow Bowl, during 2006-2013, averaged nearly 30,000 annual skier/snowboarder visits, with about 16 percent coming from Camden, 24 percent from the local area within a 30-minute drive, and 59 percent from farther away. Further analysis revealed that the Snow Bowl generates, on average, some $2.1 million annually in local spending. The bottom line, according to the study, is that the $2.1 million in direct sales results in a total $3.7 million contribution to the local economy, 62 jobs and $1.4 million in area earnings.

For us skiers, here’s what will be happening at the ski area:

A triple chair, already purchased and awaiting installation, will replace the antiquated and low-capacity double chair. The lift, which served Pleasant Mountain/Shawnee Peak prior to its replacement by a higher-capacity triple to meet the needs of the popular Portland-area facility, has been certified as safe and available for many more years of dependable service. Additionally, the lift will reach a point higher on the mountain than the current chair, near the terminus of the existing long T-Bar, which will be removed.

The lower terminal of the triple chair will be near a larger, upgraded, accessible lodge, designed to not only accommodate winter crowds but, equally important, be available for all-season events and private rentals.

The existing double chair will be “repurposed” and shortened to better accommodate beginning skiers.

Key to the redevelopment will be expansion of the snowmaking pipes and equipment from 40 percent coverage of the trails to some 80 percent. Much of the equipment will be upgraded. The beauty and appeal of a ski area from which one has a view of the ocean suffers from the vagaries of weather that is typical of the coastal plain. To counter this, the best possible snowmaking system is needed to not only ensure adequate snow coverage but, perhaps more importantly, provide the ability to recover quickly from winter rain or ice storms, especially during schools.

The uphill transportation and base lodge improvements will accommodate a comfortable carrying capacity of 600 visitors and a peak capacity of 1,000 visitors with adequate parking, lodge space, lift capacity and skier terrain. Analysis suggests that an annual average of 35,000 visits will support the redevelopment investment and operating costs of the expanded ski area. Historically the Snow Bowl has surpassed this number of visits in years of good natural snowfall but fallen short in lean snowfall years.

What began as a Franklin Roosevelt-era WPA project with the installation of a short rope tow and construction of a log base lodge, and is one of only two pre-World War II ski areas still operating in the state – the other being Pleasant Mountain/Shawnee Peak – is now realizing its full potential, thanks to a unique public/private partnership that could well provide a national model for ski area sustainability.

John Christie is a former ski racer and ski area manager and owner, a ski historian and member of the Maine Ski Hall of Fame. He and his son, Josh, write columns on alternating weeks. John can be reached at:

jchristie@fairpoint.net

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