The Ambitious Plan to Create a Ski Utopia in Maine
An impact fund wants to transform Saddleback Mountain, and its surrounding community in Rangeley, Maine, into a skier's paradise. The plan might be a moonshot. But it's also the kind of vision the greater ski industry needs.
Free yourself from the shackles of reality for a moment and join me, please, in imagining a utopian ski area. Would there be 450 inches of fresh, fluffy powder each year? Absolutely! Would the lift tickets be free? Sure! And could we accord all lodge workers and hospitality staff commodious slopeside condos replete with tidy little woodstoves?
Certainly we could do that—in an imaginary world. In the real world, there’s freezing rain and boilerplate ice and, worse, the almost inexorable market forces that have caused too many ski areas to become elitist havens where Gucci and Prada stores crowd the base lodge and low-paid employees are obliged to schlep an hour out of town to find affordable housing. But what if somebody tried to create a ski utopia? And what if they waged their campaign in the hardscrabble hinterlands of western Maine?
Arctaris Impact Fund, a Boston investment firm that specializes in shoring up struggling local economies, is doing just that. On January 31, Arctaris spent $6.5 million to purchase a beloved but troubled backwoods ski mountain—Saddleback Maine, which has been shuttered for the past five seasons. Arctaris plans to radically renovate the base lodge this summer. It’ll open the lifts in December and will eventually spend $38 million in hopes of turning Saddleback into a funky and humane nirvana, replete with affordable housing, fair compensation, day care, and bus transport for its workers—and also, yes, crazy-steep trails and a laid-back lodge where the PBR will flow at an amiable people’s price.
Arctaris will eventually spend $38 million in hopes of turning Saddleback into a funky and humane nirvana, replete with affordable housing, fair compensation, day care, and bus transport for its workers.
Arctaris’s Saddleback bid typifies an investment model that’s mushroomed since the term “impact investing” was coined in 2007 to describe funds seeking to effect social change as they make money. The Global Impact Investing Network estimates that the market size boasts over $502 billion in such managed assets. As other funds fight climate change and advocate for clean water, Arctaris, founded in 2009, has instead helped create about 200 jobs on Washington’s Yakama Indian Reservation by expanding a fiberglass plant, and also reopened a defunct paper mill in Michigan. In Maine it hopes to breathe new life into the charming but financially challenged outdoor sports mecca that sits at Saddleback’s base—Rangeley, population 1,100—and indeed the whole of Franklin County, a sprawling expanse of piney forests, snowmobile trails, and killer fishing holes that sits two and a half hours north of the nearest major city, Portland, and is home to 30,000 people, precious few wine bars or yoga studios, and many, many moose.
Arctaris will start by shelling out $7.3 million to improve uphill capacity at Saddleback, which has a vertical drop of 2,000 feet and a storied glade called Casablanca that’s central to the mountain’s reputation as an authentic and uncurated gem. A creaky 1963 top-to-bottom double chair will be replaced by a new high-speed quad. An old T-bar will likewise give way to a spiffy new one, allowing the mountain to stay open on winter’s windiest days.
That’s just the beginning. The founder and managing partner of Arctaris, 47-year-old Jonathan Tower, who happens to be an avid skier, also aims to provide Saddleback’s projected 220 employees with a staffing program unique to the ski industry—one that would link winter employees to warm-weather jobs (say, as fishing guides or dishwashers) and also provide full-timers with 401(k) plans and health care benefits. The snowmaking pumps at Saddleback will, naturally, be powered by a soon-to-be-built solar-energy farm, per Arctaris’s plan.
If Arctaris operated within the confines of traditional ski-industry financing, its ambitious plan for Saddleback would be a pipe dream, especially when you consider the decrepitude of the ski area’s current lifts and the tangle of weeds growing on its 66 forlorn trails. Arctaris works outside the box, though. While it’s infusing Saddleback with $28 million of equity and debt, it’s also expecting $5 million from the feds through the New Markets Tax Credit Program, established by Congress in 2000 to incentivize investment in low-income communities. Finally, it hopes to raise a total of $5 million from donors. (So far it’s brought in $3 million from 250 parties. The largest donations were in the neighborhood of $400,000, coming from people whose families had been in Maine for generations and contributed without an expectation of return.) Saddleback is one of the first American ski areas to be wholly owned by an impact fund.
“A traditional private-equity firm wouldn’t have been able to make Saddleback profitable,” said Tower. “An impact fund was the right fit.”
Tower concedes that profits will be a long time coming at Saddleback. “We don’t expect to realize the profit on our investment until we sell the mountain,” he said. “This is a seven-to-ten-year project.” Still, he’s hopeful. “When we got to Rangeley,” he said, “the prevailing winds were already blowing in the right direction. People really wanted the mountain to reopen.”
Remote and wild Saddleback has always functioned as a blank slate onto which ski-world idealists have cast their grandest hopes. First conceived by a group of Rangeley businessmen, who leased forestland belonging to a paper company in the late 1950s, it was initially billed as the Sun Valley of the East, promising long runs and deep snow. But its founders faltered: they opened a year late, in 1960, with but a single T-bar. A few lean snow years, followed by a Carter-era gas crunch, made Saddleback’s ride into the midseventies somewhat uneven, financially speaking, and during one 18-year period, between 1969 and 1987, the mountain had six different owners.
When Donald Breen, a pharmaceutical kingpin from Massachusetts, took Saddleback over in 1987, he recast the resort as a yee-haw western-themed wonderland, giving trails names such as Bronco Buster and Cowpokes Cruise. But Breen spent much of his 16 years at the helm fighting the National Park Service, which attempted to take over the top section of Saddleback Mountain by eminent domain. (The Appalachian Trail winds across the summit.) Ultimately, an NPS spokesperson told Outside, “a negotiated settlement was reached that met the needs of both parties.”
In 2003, Breen sold the place to Bill and Irene Berry, who harbored a health care fortune, and while the Berrys spent $50 million installing two shorter chairlifts, building trails, and fortifying snowmaking, they weren’t nimble enough to meet growing demand: when visitorship swelled in the 2010s, they never replaced that 1963 double chair—and lift lines grew to 40 minutes long. The Berrys, who are both over 80 and owned the mountain with their seven grown children, abruptly shut the ski area down in 2015, disinclined to sink millions into replacing the the old chair with its meager uphill capacity.
An apparent white knight emerged in 2017, in the form of Sebastian Monsour, head of the Australian development firm Majella, who promised to build an eight-mile tram from Rangeley to the base lodge and “transform Saddleback into the premier ski resort in North America.”
“Every town Arctaris takes on has lost its major employer,” said Tower. “We wanted to be part of the solution of bringing Rangeley back.”
Monsour cut the Berrys a $500,000 check—earnest money—and actually choked up at one public conference, proclaiming that he was reviving Saddleback as an homage to his late mother. But secretly recorded audio from September 2017 leaked to News Center Maine, an NBC affiliate, revealed that at a Majella staff meeting Monsour said, “Opening the mountain is not a primary concern for us.” His main aim, he confessed, was to take advantage of the federal government’s EB-5 program, through which foreigners can attain green cards if they invest in a job-creating U.S. business. (The minimum investment was $500,000 in 2017; it now stands at $900,000.) Majella never bought Saddleback. Monsour is now facing unrelated fraud charges in Australia.
Arctaris emerged in Maine headlines as a prospective buyer in 2018. In the months that followed, the citizens of Rangeley monitored acquisition talks in the local papers as Saddleback loomed above them, east of town, its curving, tree-lined trails a drain on the Rangeley psyche.
A logging town almost since its inception in the mid-19th century, Rangeley has always been a tourist town, too. Hunters and fishers rode some of the earliest trains into Maine, and while Rangeley still has a strong logging industry, today most of its jobs come from tourism. Legions of snowmobilers visit every winter, and in the summer, Rangeley hosts big outdoor concerts (the Steve Miller Band played last year). Saddleback, meanwhile, is the cornerstone of the economy. In 2016, the year after the mountain closed, sales revenues in town dropped about 30 percent, according to some local business people, prompting a population exodus.
In its injured state, Rangeley was a perfect candidate for Arctaris’s help. “Every town Arctaris takes on has lost its major employer,” said Tower. “We wanted to be part of the solution of bringing Rangeley back.”
Arctaris’s courtship of Saddleback was a cliffhanger, though. Closing was never a certainty, and Saddleback’s devotees had already waited and suffered for years.
As the Arctaris deal neared closing, the denizens of the Friends of Saddleback Mountain Facebook group grew anxious trying to read the tea leaves of the abstruse negotiations. “This memo,” one wrote, noodling over a letter Tower wrote to a Rangeley conservationist, “would seem to point to the Arctaris deal being off.”
“No news is bad news!! Ugh,” wrote another awaiting an Arctaris update.
Arctaris did close on Saddleback, though, on Friday, January 31, and moments after, the faithful were drinking cold beer on the ski area’s deck—never mind that it was 20 degrees out. The next day, I left my home in central New Hampshire and began driving toward Maine.
I entered Franklin County on Route 16, which is thickly appointed with flashing yellow road signs warning of moose collisions. Off to my right was the frozen expanse of Rangeley Lake, its nearest shores a green blanket of spruce and firs, and spreading beyond that, the old stream-riven stomping grounds of Cornelia “Fly Rod” Crosby, an intrepid 19th-century Maine woman who hunted caribou in the 1890s and then wrote a syndicated outdoors column that established Rangeley as a fly-fishing Valhalla—a destination that, even today, lures anglers to its half-dozen hotels in the high-season months of May and June.
In Rangeley, I landed at Sarge’s Pub and Grub, a onetime dive, recently renovated but still ground zero for raw Saddleback joy. I was 24 hours late for the unfettered pandemonium, but already the delight over Arctaris’s closing was flowing into new creative channels. Fifty-one-year-old bar manager Crystal Sargent, the daughter-in-law of Sarge’s owner, told me that she was putting together an all-female rock band to play at Saddleback’s launch party in December. A tall, angular woman wearing a blue Sarge’s hat topped with a pom-pom, Sargent was particularly proud of the name she’d devised for the band: Cougar Skyway. “None of us can play an instrument,” she said, “but we have a band, and we’re gonna start having band practice. I’m the lead singer, and Krista’s the lead guitarist,” she said, naming other Rangeley locals, “and Tyler’s the drummer. Oh, and Peggy is the bass player. You can’t leave her out. She’d be insulted.”
Somehow, Cougar Skyway struck me as significant. The project’s unrehearsed charm seemed to epitomize the down-home spirit Saddleback can bring to the ski world. Whether or not the idea for the band was a joke, in my heart, I was already holding a Bic lighter aloft for Cougar Skyway. So I was happy when, the next day, I crossed paths with the band’s 29-year-old guitarist, Krista Jamison.
Jamison, who works as a realtor in Rangeley, told me, “Now that Arctaris closed, everyone wants to look at houses here.” Jamison added that, in recent years, her contemporaries have been fleeing Rangeley; the town has become grayer and stodgier. “But I think young people are going to come back,” she said. “They’ll want to start families here. There’ll be a new energy.”
Karen Seaman, the manager of Forks in the Air, a Rangeley restaurant, also sees the town rising out of dire straits. “Right now,” she said, “you just can’t hire people. Even in summer, restaurants here are closed two nights a week because they can’t find staff. If Arctaris offers employees year-round work and health insurance, that’ll be a huge draw for people.” Seaman told me, “I like how Arctaris is thinking.”
But to really register the new hope that’s blossomed in Rangeley, I needed to drive up the winding hill to Saddleback’s lodge and talk to Jimmy Quimby. Fifty-nine years old and weathered, his chin specked with salt-and-pepper stubble, Quimby is the scion of a Saddleback pillar. His father, Doc, poured concrete to build the towers for one of Saddleback’s first lifts in 1963 and later built trails and made snow for the mountain. His mother, Judy, worked in the ski area’s cafeteria for about 15 years. “We were so poor,” Quimby told me, “that we didn’t have a pot to piss in, but I skied every weekend.” Indeed, as a high schooler, Quimby took part in every form of alpine ski competition available—on a single pair of skis. His 163-centimeter Dynastar Easy Riders were both his ballet boards and his giant-slalom guns. They also transported him to mischief. In his teenage years, Quimby was part of a nefarious Saddleback gang, the Rat Pack. “We terrorized the skiing public,” he said. “We built jumps. We skied fast. We made the T-bar swerve so people fell off.”
“We’re going to do this,” he said quietly. “We’re going to make this happen.”
Just days after his 18th birthday, Quimby left Maine to serve 20 years in the Air Force as an electrical-line repairman and managed, somehow, to spend a good chunk of time near Japan’s storied Hakkoda Ski Resort, where he routinely hucked himself off 35-foot cornices while schussing in blue jeans. When he returned to Maine in 1998, he commenced working at Saddleback and honed such a love for the mountain that, when it closed in 2015, his heart broke. He simply refused to ski after that. “I decided,” he said, “that I just wouldn’t ski anywhere else.” Friends in the industry offered him free tickets at nearby mountains; Quimby demurred and hunkered down at Saddleback, where he remained mountain manager. The Berrys paid him to watch over the nonfunctioning trails and lifts during the long closure. “I’m a prideful person,” he explained. “OK, I did do a little skiing with my grandchildren, but they’re preschoolers. I haven’t made an adult turn since Saddleback closed.”
Quimby is now working for Arctaris, which owns Saddleback Inc., but that’s a technicality. His mission is spiritual, and when I met him in his office, I found that I had stepped into a shrine, a jam-packed Saddleback museum. There were lapel pins, patches, bumper stickers, posters, and also a wooden ski signed in 1960 by about 35 of Saddleback’s progenitors. Quimby’s prize possession, though, is a brass belt buckle he bought in the Saddleback rental shop in the 1970s. “I used to wear it every day,” he told me, “but when Saddleback closed, I put it on a dresser and never wore it again.”
Quimby stood up from the desk now, to reveal that he was wearing the buckle once more. In capitalized brass letters, it read “SKI.” His eyes were glassy with emotion.
“We’re going to do this,” he said quietly, speaking of Saddleback’s resurrection. “We’re going to make this happen.”
But is Arctaris’s vision for Saddleback pie in the sky?
Certainly, the ski industry is facing myriad challenges—climate change arguably the biggest. A 2018 paper in the journal Geophysical Research Letters noted that the snowy season in the lower 48 states has become, on average, 34 days shorter compared to 1982. Saddleback, which averages about 148 inches of snow a year (compared to 141 and 128 inches at Sugarloaf Mountain and Sunday River Resort, respectively, its biggest Maine competitors), could conceivably enjoy a few above-average bounty winters over the next decade, but Sean Birkel, a climatologist at the University of Maine’s Climate Change Institute, said, “Maine’s warming climate is expected to bring shorter winters with less snow and more rain overall.” Arctaris plans to spend $2.3 million on new snowmaking, but it’s not clear if that will be enough.
Still, today’s ski industry is arguably most threatened by its own profligate excesses. A one-day lift ticket at Vail, Colorado, can cost $209. In skiing’s most exclusive and exalted redoubts—like Aspen and Vail—billionaires are now displacing mere millionaires in the battle for slopeside real estate. Condo owners can rent their places for $600 or more a night on Airbnb. It’s become all but impossible to get by as a low-budget ski bum. Those eager kids who used to toil all winter for a free season pass? They’ve almost disappeared. “The need for labor in the nation’s 37 ski states remains critical,” said Dave Byrd, director of Risk and Regulatory Affairs at the National Ski Areas Association. “We’re closely monitoring Saddleback to see if they’re able to find and retain labor.”
Can a scruffy Maine mountain do that—and also become a gentle paradise? It’s too early to tell. Right now Arctaris’s first priority is the logistical challenge of making Saddleback skiable. Jimmy Quimby needs to hire at least 15 people over the next four months, and then those folks need to go into ballistic mode, disassembling the T-bar and the 1963 chairlift to make way for lift-installation companies. They need to hack the weeds off the trails and chainsaw down the saplings that have sprouted over the past five years.
Arctaris hasn’t even developed a site plan for affordable housing yet. The employee busing and day care are still in the early planning stages, as is the solar farm, and while Arctaris’s Jonathan Tower is working with the State of Maine, hoping to get the staffing office launched by next winter, he might not meet his deadline.
Still, it would be wrong to write Arctaris off, considering the man that Tower has hired to serve as Saddleback’s general manager and Quimby’s boss. Andy Shepard, 62, is a South Freeport, Maine, visionary who 20 years ago founded the Maine Winter Sports Center (now called the Outdoor Sports Institute), a nonprofit that bought and transformed two defunct Maine ski areas—Bigrock Mountain and Black Mountain Maine, the latter of which he purchased for one dollar.
When Shepard first took over at Black Mountain, the base lodge was frequently flooded with sewage. He built a new lodge, tripled the mountain’s vertical drop by installing a new chairlift, and created a museum honoring the six Olympians that Black Mountain has produced. Both Bigrock and Black Mountain are still thriving family destinations, and in 2013, endeavoring to boost rural economies, the Outdoor Sport Institute gave these two mountains away—each to a local nonprofit that is focused on fostering the regional economy as it promotes skiing.
“The people of western Maine are no-nonsense. They don’t care what kinds of clothes you wear or what kind of car you drive. If you love skiing, you’re in here. And the mountain itself, it’s been part of the lives of tens of thousands of families.”
Shepard is a carefully spoken man and also a dreamer. When I met with him and his wife, Betsey, one quiet evening in Rangeley, in the posh and rustic pine-paneled environs of the dining room at Loon Lodge Inn, he wore horn-rimmed glasses and an ornate Tyrolean sweater as he spoke of western Maine in reverent tones.
“We honeymooned right here at Saddleback Lake Lodge, in 1981,” he said. “The people of western Maine are no-nonsense. They don’t care what kinds of clothes you wear or what kind of car you drive. If you love skiing, you’re in here. And the mountain itself”—he gestured toward Saddleback—“it’s been part of the lives of tens of thousands of families.”
The same could be said of Black Mountain, of course, one of Shepard’s successful turnarounds. So a couple weeks later, when I was passing through western Maine, I dropped by there, hoping to get a taste of the casual magic that might pervade the new Saddleback.
In the rental shop, I talked to clerk Peter Chase. “We used to be a local ski area,” said Chase, a town selectman in nearby Rumford. “Now 70 percent of our skiers come from places like Augusta and Lewiston and Auburn.” He spoke of these small Maine cities in awed tones of appreciation before adding, “But we’re still the kind of ski area where people are willing to get down on their hands and knees to help a little boy put on his ski boots.”
Outside, under azure skies, hundreds of skiers were braving the ten-degree chill, not all of them with alpinist grace. (Black is not a black-diamond mountain.) By midafternoon the packed base lodge was almost steamy with human heat. Upstairs, in the Last Run Pub, a veteran singer-songwriter—Jim Gallant, a native of Mexico, Maine—played soulfully. I sat at the bar nursing an ale as I watched the crowds clomp in and out in their ski boots. I basked in the warmth and the happiness undergirding the applause that followed each song, and as I neared the bottom of my pint, I cast my mind nine months forward to Saddleback’s grand-opening party.
Cougar Skyway is going to rock that bash.
Editor’s Note: The story has been updated with the original name of the Outdoor Sports Institute.