Thursday, December 5, 2013
By JOHN CHRISTIE Special to the Telegram
"If Maine has a chance, it will probably be through the best efforts of not only the environmentalists but a new breed of businessmen as well -- men who want primarily to see their state develop rather than be developed. There are strong indications that John Christie fits that pattern. He's coming home to Maine from the big-time national ski world in order to develop Saddleback Mountain. One thing is certain, we'll know a bit more about John Christie and Saddleback Mountain 10 years and 30 million dollars from now."
The base lodge is among the amenities that John Christie enhanced as owner of Saddleback after having learned the complexities of the ski industry in Vermont. The lodge was renovated again by the Berry family during their 10-year ownership of Saddleback.
The Associated Press
A young John Christie grooms Saddleback’s slopes while employee Dick Frost looks on during the mid-1970s.
So began an extensive article entitled "If Maine Has a Chance," written by I. William Berry in Yankee magazine in the summer of 1973. I've kept this edition of the magazine locked away, but to this day it can remind me of the wild-eyed optimism of youth, of the price you can pay for hubris, of the problems one can encounter relying on influences beyond one's control, of the importance of understanding the marketplace and the competition, of the absolute necessity to couple big plans with big resources, and of a period in my life that was both the best and the worst I would ever experience.
My ride on the Saddleback rollercoaster began on a beautiful spring day in 1972 as I sat in my cushy chair in my glass-walled office on the third floor of the base lodge at what we -- meaning me and Walt Schoenknecht, the area's fascinating visionary and owner -- were then promoting as "The World's Largest Ski Area" (10,000 skiers on a weekend day) at Mount Snow in Vermont.
My phone rang on that spring day, and I was receptive to a question posed by a banker on the other end of the line: "John, would you have any interest in buying an unnamed ski area in Rangeley, Maine?"
I knew, of course, that he was talking about Saddleback, and after a lengthy conversation during which he disclosed that it was the Gannett family, and its publishing company (Guy Gannett Publishing, former owner of the Portland Press Herald and Maine Sunday Telegram), that owned the ski area and had suggested he contact me to test my interest, I agreed to fly to Maine to discuss the possibility in detail after having made it clear that I had neither won the lottery, inherited a family fortune, nor amassed one myself.
Since that didn't sound to the caller like an impediment, we proceeded.
PEAKS AND VALLEYS
One of the greatest lessons I had learned in my short years in the ski business, and especially during my years at Mount Snow as we built a golf course and dramatically grew our non-skiing revenues, was that you really had to figure out a way to even out the seasonal peaks and valleys inherent in the tourism business.
So Saddleback was especially appealing to me, given its long summer tourism tradition, and the potential to link the ski area to the surrounding lakes in some way. And the proximity of the ski area to Saddleback Lake was obviously tantalizing. Not to mention that my years in Vermont hadn't diminished my love for Maine and the fact that I knew I would someday go home again.
Through the spring and summer, after a series of fits and starts including, tragically, the death of George Marshall, Gannett Publishing's general manager with whom I was negotiating, I found myself in the early fall owning Saddleback. I formed a very small board of directors, to whom I knew I would have to turn for advice, which included three good friends.
Since the place was in need of quite a lot of work in the fall to get it ready, and given a lesson I had learned from Walt Schoenknecht about the foolhardiness of putting one's own money at risk in an industry that already was showing a few cracks in its hull, I actually bought not only the lifts, trails, a relatively new and very nice base lodge, and a lease from Hudson Pulp and Paper Company -- and convinced the seller to throw in some working capital to get me going.
The 1972-73 ski season was slow in starting for all the areas in the Northeast, and only the few with snowmaking capabilities were able to provide decent Christmas skiing. Fortunately, we had a rudimentary system on the Wheeler Slope and so we could not only run that lift, but I got Gardner DeFoe to bring his Sugarloafer Ski Camp over for the vacation week, as Sugarloaf had yet to install snowmaking. We charged him a pittance, but sold a lot of hot chocolate. I still treasure the cards of thanks that every one of the campers sent me.
We ended up with a successful enough season that we pressed forward with our aggressive development plans, the principal features of which were our Saddleback Village pedestrian base area with condominiums and motel rooms, and a major aerial lift to the summit.
We began work on cutting a line to accommodate a chair lift. The lift line was slightly more than 2,000 vertical feet, and the upper terminal of the lift was to be located somewhat below the summit and the Appalachian Trail. I felt this careful placement would maintain the integrity of the trail (the entire distance of which in Maine I had hiked by that time) and allow us to access Saddleback's distinctive snow fields by lift.
That lift line, to be subsequently named Bronco Buster and kept cleared for the top 1,000 vertical feet, is now called Tight Line. We named the lift line, appropriately I thought, in keeping with the tradition started before me of naming the trails for fishing terms. On either side of it we cut parallel trails and named them Hook, Line, and Sinker.
NO CROWDED SLOPES
I had no other plans for expanding the uphill capacity on the existing trail network, as my experience at Mount Snow had taught me the folly of putting too many skiers on the trails and ruining everyone's experience.
The new trails would move us a little farther to the east, nearer to the bowls leading down to once-dammed Redington Pond and the old narrow gauge railroad line. Our long-range vision, shared by the Mazurs who actually had a log camp on the shore of the pond of which Dick Mazur and his brothers were very fond, was that ultimately the entire base village, or at least a second one, would be located at the foot of the very attractive, less wind-affected terrain away from the exposed northwestern shoulder of the mountain on which the current ski area sits.
Not only were the Mazurs and I enthusiastic about moving east, so was our land planner, Bill Dickson. And as I was still under the spell of Walt Schoenknecht, his remark when we flew over the Redington Pond area, excerpted in the Yankee magazine article, "That valley there ... you could put 300,000 people and a network of lifts" resonated with me.
With the help of Dickson, an especially environmentally sensitive land planner in Scarborough, we developed a plan for an initial integrated base village inspired not only by what we had done at Mount Snow, but by visits to Zermatt in Switzerland, Vail, Aspen and Sun Valley.
The first stage called for the construction of 20 condominium units just below the base lodge, to be called The Birches. We decided on 20 because I could find 20 buyers if we could price the units right and could guarantee some rental income for the owners. To accomplish the latter, we designed units to include two first-floor bedrooms with baths with separate entrances from the outside. This would give us, in effect, 40 rentable motel units built not by us but by the condominium owners, thus providing for the first time guest housing right on the mountain.
We broke ground in the summer of 1973.
The winter of 1973-74 combined the best and the worst of my life in the ski business. The best part, despite a pretty bleak season with below-average snowfall, was our hosting the first-ever Winter Special Olympics.
That came about as a result of a chance meeting and friendship with Sargent Shriver, his wife Eunice's vision and determination, and Maine Special Olympics Director Mickey Boutilier's conviction that we could pull it off.
The biggest potential problem was housing the competitors, officials and volunteers -- not to mention my old Bowdoin fraternity brother, Bill Cohen, in his first term in Congress, and his family, and Ken Curtis, Maine's governor, and his family as well.
Fortunately, kids were willing to sleep on the floors of nearly-finished but unfurnished condominiums, and the whole event was a smashing success. For me, it was one of the most inspiring weeks of my life as I watched the Special Olympians enjoy the fun of frolicking and competing in the snow. It may be the proudest memory of all my years in the business.
The worst part, without a doubt, was feeling the effects of the first Arab oil embargo and the hesitancy of skiers to risk driving all the way to the mountains of western Maine and face the prospect of not being able to buy enough gas to get home. We even advertised that if anyone found themselves short of gas when it came time to leave, we'd top 'em off from our fuel tank at the maintenance building. But the embargo was also the first sign of some tough financial times to come, as people tightened their belts and cut back on discretionary spending.
Equally devastating for me was the fact that the Mazur brothers -- owners of Hudson Pulp and Paper Company, my landlord -- got an offer they couldn't refuse from a large paper company for their lands in Maine, so they disappeared as an equity partner and my best -- and last -- hope for about a million bucks to build a new lift.
Our second season owning Saddleback, despite the embargo, showed increased traffic, thanks to aggressive promotion and a deal I did with Hannaford Brothers that allowed their customers to swap their cash register receipts for a midweek lift ticket. So we had lots more people, but at a price. I was willing to virtually give away our product just to get people to experience Saddleback, as I was convinced that if they came once they might be tempted to come back. A good long-term strategy, but it doesn't pay the light bill.
Cash flow was insufficient to cover operations and debt service, let alone fund the continuation of our aggressive development program, and our balance and profit-and-loss sheets weren't attractive to new equity partners. I had learned at Mount Snow and was relearning at Saddleback that increasing debt can be a death spiral. So I refused to take on any more, despite more than one opportunity to do so.
I was able to hang on for another ski season in 1974-75, but it was clear my business model was unsustainable. The only small consolation was that my experience was more the norm than the exception at the time, as under-financed operations fell like dominoes through the latter part of the 1970s and even accelerated in the 1980s.
I'm consoled that Saddleback, despite its vicissitudes, survives and that it is now in the hands of owners who share, I like to think, my much earlier vision. The Berry family has done great things and I'm sure will find a way to assure the continuing operation of a very special recreational and economic resource for western Maine.
Bill Berry -- no relation to Saddleback's current owner -- said in the Yankee magazine article: "John Christie is a ski bum who made good. In ten years he's gone from a bartender at the base of Sugarloaf to the owner of Saddleback; at the age of 35, he is head of his own ski area and mastermind of a creative program to build a whole new New England village right at the base of the lifts."
I wish it had worked. But it was a good run, and I take great comfort knowing that Saddleback is now, finally, in good hands.
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 ski columns on alternating weeks. John can be reached at: