Students from North Yarmouth Academy arrive at the Flagstaff Lake Hut while skiing in 2012. Staff file photo by Shawn Patrick Ouellette

The Maine Huts and Trails system of four lodges connected by 80 miles of trail in western Maine will not open this winter if it cannot raise $500,000 in the next four to six weeks to pay staff and prepare the huts and trails for the season, the nonprofit’s leaders said last week.

The 11-year-old organization, which has had five executive directors since 2012, has come up $140,000 short in revenue every year for the past six years and has put off infrastructure improvements that are now necessary to operate, said board chairman Bob Peixotto.

The $500,000, which it hopes to raise from private donations, would pay for salaries, the preparation of ski grooming equipment and repairs to energy systems, trails and bridges, all needed just to open the doors, Peixotto said. He said the organization will need to raise another $500,000 by early next year to restructure in order to be viable in the long term. That money would be used for marketing and hiring a full-time development director to apply for grants and state and federal funds available to nonprofits, a position the organization hasn’t had previously.

The organization currently has seven full-time staff members and eight seasonal employees, who would lose their jobs if the hut system doesn’t open for winter, Peixotto said.

The hut system’s leaders are calling the sudden pause a “reboot” of the organization, but they acknowledge that if they don’t raise the needed funds and open, it will result in a difficult setback.

“We don’t want to be here again. We’ve seen what that looks like from other examples in the region,” said Huts and Trails Executive Director Wolfe Tone, referring to the Saddleback ski area, which has sat closed for four years.

Maine Huts and Trails opened in 2008 with a hut in Carrabassett Valley, 2.4 miles of trail and a mission to help people better experience Maine’s wild landscape and draw more eco-tourism to rural areas of the state. The original vision was to build 12 huts along an 180-mile corridor between the Bethel region and Moosehead Lake. The four huts were up and running by 2012, when the organization said it was going to take a break from building to work on programming.

Today, the system’s four lodges have capacity for 168 people – and have drawn a low of 8,100 annual visitors and a high of 10,000 over the past five years, according to the organization. The lodges offer full service, with prepared meals, through the winter and from the summer to fall, as well as the self-service experience during the shoulder seasons, in April and May and then November and December, which means guests can use the kitchen to cook their own meals. This summer, two of the four huts didn’t open because of a labor shortage, the organization said. The lodges have bathrooms with running water and hot showers. The cost per person has been about $95 to $135 for full service for nonmember adults, and $86 to $124 for full service for adult members, a price point on par with Appalachian Mountain Club lodges.

Caretakers of the Flagstaff Lake Hut in Carrabassett Valley, Chris Nile and Natalie Tarr, prepare an onion and mushroom quiche for guests at the hut in 2015. Morning Sentinel file photo by Michael G. Seamans

All told, the hut system has hosted as many a 76,000 visitors, including 325 school groups and outing clubs, and has had an estimated economic impact of $52 million (including $300,000 that the huts system has spent annually at local businesses).

But last year, the organization eliminated its marketing budget. As a result, Peixotto said, there have been fewer reservations and a shortage of capital. The organization relies on revenue from lodging, as well as donations and grants, to cover its $1.8 million operating costs. Recent tax returns show $4 million to $5 million in assets, but Peixotto said that represents the value of the buildings, vehicles, equipment, land and easements.

Peixotto, the former 30-year chief operating officer at L.L. Bean who has served on the huts board almost since its inception, said the organization, from the start, should have focused more on going after grant funding to support its mission of getting people, especially youth, outdoors, and needs to reorganize to do that going forward.

“We’ve been prioritizing hospitality rather than fundraising and being a nonprofit,” he said. “We need to change. What will be different will be Maine Huts and Trails will have a diversified revenue stream, rather than depending on hospitality to pay the bills. We will look to others to help us fund the trails, and partners to help us get kids involved.”

The system was modeled after the Appalachian Mountain Club high huts in the White Mountains and the 10th Mountain Division huts in the Rocky Mountains. But the Maine hut system had some distinct differences, Peixotto said, namely, no endowment and a small membership base that today numbers 1,000 – compared to AMC’s membership of 275,000.

Tone said the organization also is looking at partnering with universities and outdoor organizations. In recent years, Huts and Trails has forged partnerships with Colby College, which has used the huts as remote outdoor classrooms for 100 students, and Chewonki, which sends staff in the summer to work and teach guests about conservation. Further partnerships could offer ways to diversify the organization’s funding, Tone said.

Leaders in Maine’s outdoor recreation industry think the hut system’s reorganization is overdue and could put it on the path to a healthy financial future.

“You have got to have an experienced, creative effective development person because there are funds out there that are available, and people and organizations that want to help,” said Andy Shepard, who founded and led the Maine Winter Sports Center to establish two Nordic centers in Aroostook County. “You can’t just have a board member call someone up and ask them to write a check. Nonprofits without an effective development director typically do not last very long.”

Shepard, who has been involved with trying to reopen Saddleback, said the Huts and Trails organization needs to be clearer about how it helps the local economy and schoolchildren and that it is a nonprofit that needs financial support.

“Too many people have no idea the challenges Maine Huts and Trails faces. If they know Maine Huts and Trails may not come back again, then I think they would think that was a devastating loss to the people of Maine,” Shepard said.

Dave Herring, the Maine Huts and Trails’ first executive director and now the director of Wolfe’s Neck Center for Agriculture and the Environment, said during the five years he oversaw the hut system, it had a marketing director who worked as a development director to raise money, but it probably should have been two jobs.

“It takes an incredible business model to operate off-the-grid lodges like that. And I think Maine Huts and Trails has been a pioneer to create the system,” Herring said. “I’m not seeing a total shift is needed. But they need a more balanced approach. They certainly need to do everything they can to build greater awareness around the importance of an effort like this.”

However, nonprofits experts say the turnover in executive directors raises a red flag.

Rick Cohen, a spokesman for National Council of Nonprofits in Washington, D.C., called it “excessive.” Cohen said, for most nonprofits of a similar size, the executive director serves as the development director, writing grants and raising money. And he said adding that position is no “golden ticket to turning things around,” but it undoubtedly would help.

Scott Schnapp, former executive director of the Maine Association of Nonprofits, also called the turnover in leadership a bad sign, but he said what the hut system offers Maine is significant.

“It’s a pretty visionary economic development and community impact story. Unfortunately, they haven’t been able to land on a business model that builds them toward a sustainable budget,” Schnapp said.

He said growing from one to four huts in less than 10 years might have been an overstep, especially given the lack of big business and industry in Maine.

“Sometimes big visions can be dangerous, because you sort of pursue the big vision without a full awareness or understanding of the steps to sustainability needed along the way,” Schnapp said. “Being a poor state with limited resources to support all (this nonprofit) activity – that’s the crux of the problem.”

Nordic skier and mountain biker Patrick Desrosiers stayed at the huts with his fiancée once two winters ago. Ever since, Desrosiers said, they’ve wanted to return. They carried their packs in two miles to the Flagstaff Hut and skied from there on the groomed trails.

“When I heard they might close, we were upset. We loved the experience,” Desrosiers said. “It’s unique.”

Tracy Teare, who is the assistant Nordic ski coach at Yarmouth High School, called it a truly rare experience. She went on two overnight trips several years ago with a group of women, where they skied all day to get to and stay in the different huts.

“I’d be sad if it closed,” Teare said. “To find a place in the outdoors and feel like it’s really far way from things and disconnected is a rare thing today.”

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