A Boston investment firm is still negotiating to buy Saddleback ski area, but says state support for $10 million in federal tax incentives it was awarded this week are unrelated to its attempt to buy the shuttered resort.

Jonathan Tower, managing partner of Arctaris Impact Fund, said his firm has been trying to buy the ski hill near Rangeley for more than a year, and is close to reaching a purchase-and-sale agreement with the Berry family, Saddleback’s owners. Maine’s third-largest ski area has been closed since after the 2014-2015 season.

Last summer, negotiations stalled because the resort was not eligible for a federal Opportunity Zone tax credit. On Thursday, the Finance Authority of Maine announced Arctaris was approved for $10 million in loan guarantees for Opportunity Zone investments, prompting speculation that the Saddleback deal was back on the table.

Questions are abound in Rangeley. Will Saddleback be open for skiing later this year? Ben McCanna/Staff Photographer

But Tower said the tax breaks are not part of the current Saddleback negotiations.

“We want to make clear that the Finance Authority of Maine’s announcement yesterday (about Opportunity Zone federal tax credit) and our interest in Saddleback and Rangeley are two independent initiatives,” Tower said. “But I do believe it demonstrates our commitment to invest in rural, economically isolated communities. To that end, we will continue to work with the Berry family in good faith to reach a purchase and sale agreement for the mountain.”

An attorney representing Bill and Irene Berry of Farmington confirmed progress on the deal.

“We are in serious negotiations that are ongoing with Arctaris. That’s the extent of our comment on Saddleback. But I would say we are in serious negotiations,” said attorney Severin Beliveau of Preti Flaherty in Portland.

MULTIPLE RUMORS BUT NO DEALS

As Maine’s third-largest ski resort, Saddleback was a major employer and tourist destination in Franklin County. Rumors about potential buyers have surfaced constantly over the past four years.

One potential buyer was the Australian developer the Majella Group, whose CEO, Sebastian Monsour, came to Maine in June 2017 to announce he would buy the ski area and turn it into the “premier ski resort in North America.” Monsour later was arrested in Australia on a charge of fraud after allegedly misusing $5 million from a Chinese developer.

Other potential buyers included the nonprofit Saddleback Mountain Foundation.

Tower said his investment firm is part of a different storyline.

“Arctaris is a social-impact investment firm that I co-founded 10 years ago,” he said. “We have made investments in urban and rural communities in partnership with foundations, city and state governments, and the federal government to execute on this vision. When we express an interest in doing something, it’s genuine. We have invested in a lot of communities. This is what we do.”

Arctaris is the best hope for Saddleback, said Andy Shepard, who founded the former Maine Winter Sports Center and guided the creation of two World Cup biathlon centers in northern Maine and the redevelopment of two small ski areas: Black Mountain in Rumford and Big Rock in Mars Hill.

Shepard said that his work over the past 20 years was similar to Arctaris’ effort to reinvigorate Saddleback, which is located in a mountainous region that is a recreational hub of outdoor activity, and also a remote, rural community.

Shepard believes Arctaris is poised to revive Saddleback.

“Absolutely. This is not some fly-by-night organization with no experience in this. It’s their entire business model,” said Shepard, who has been working with Arctaris to get Saddleback open again.

“These guys are smart. They care about this stuff. They’re very serious about it – and it’s not new to them. They have a long track record of this kind of investment around the country. It’s really exciting.”

Tower said he hopes to reopen the ski resort this winter.

“That’s still a goal, but not a certainty,” he said. “We are working toward that goal.”

TAX BREAKS IN PLAY

When Arctaris considered buying the property last year, receipt of the Opportunity Zone tax breaks was crucial to its financing. The absence of those tax credits meant the firm had to consider alternative types of financing, such as public-private partnerships.

Rangeley and Sandy River Plantation, where Saddleback is located, were not included in Maine’s designated Opportunity Zone areas approved by the U.S. Treasury. Former Gov. Paul LePage designated 32 census tracts as eligible for the tax credit, and none was in Franklin County. New tracts cannot be added without an act of Congress, said Kate Foye, communications manager of the Maine Department of Economic Community Development, which oversees Maine’s Opportunity Zone credit.

The Opportunity Zone tax benefit is part of a relatively new economic development program that allowed governors in 2018 to designate zones in a limited number of low-income areas where investors would receive tax breaks by directing their capital into business or real estate. It works by deferring and discounting capital gains tax for investors who roll over investments into projects that will benefit those communities.

The Arctaris fund has $500 million in capitalization from U.S. commercial banks, institutional investors and family offices designated for Opportunity Zone investments across the country. On Thursday, the Finance Authority of Maine agreed in principle to guarantee up to $10 million in loans for Arctaris for Maine Opportunity Zone projects.

The specific Maine projects for the Arctaris investment have not been announced. The firm is considering investments in manufacturing businesses, high-speed internet via broadband fiber and solar power infrastructure. The loan guarantees for specific projects would still need to get FAME approval.

This story was updated at 9:30 a.m. on July 13 to clarify the status of Arctaris’ loan guarantees.

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