RUMFORD — On the hottest morning of summer, thoughts of snow-covered trails dotted with colorfully dressed skiers filled the airy post-and-beam lodge at Black Mountain of Maine.
There will be skiing at Black Mountain this winter and for many winters to come.
At least, that was the hope and the expectation among more than four dozen supporters of one of Maine’s most historic community skiing centers. They gathered Friday to hear Maine Winter Sports Center president Andy Shepard announce that, because of rapid progress in a fundraising campaign, his organization is making a gift of the resort and all its assets to the all-volunteer Black Mountain board of directors, who plan to continue its operations as a not-for-profit entity.
On the heels of a town vote on June 11 that, among other things, denied a $51,000 request to fund Black Mountain as a recreational resource, Shepard announced that the resort would have to close. The announcement sparked a fundraising drive to save the mountain.
“The way the community of Rumford and Western Maine has approached the possibility of losing Black Mountain has been inspiring to me, inspiring to the Libra Foundation and frankly, inspiring to thousands of people across the country,” Shepard said. “It’s clear that Black Mountain is important to a lot of people.”
Shepard said fundraising efforts have raised in more than $125,000 over the past three weeks toward a goal of $200,000. More is needed, he said, but enough has been raised to ensure skiing will continue for the coming winter.
A decade ago, the area owed $87,000 on a trail groomer, featured only 470 feet of vertical terrain serviced by a T-bar, and had a sloped muddy parking lot and a small lodge built in 1961 that, because of its location, prevented simultaneous Alpine and cross country competitions.
“The mountain was about to croak,” said 93-year-old Wendall Broomhall, a two-time Olympian who first approached MWSC for help in saving the community ski center that began operations in 1960 as the Chisholm Ski Center. “If they hadn’t taken it over, we wouldn’t be here right now.”
With Libra Foundation backing, the MWSC bought out the groomer debt, took over the resort from the Greater Rumford Community Center — which had taken control in 1975 — and poured more than $9 million into upgrades, including new lifts, a spacious new lodge, snowmaking, four paved parking lots, and trailwork that increased the vertical skiing terrain to among the four largest areas in Maine.
“We believed we could make a difference for these communities and invested significant resources into the project because we believed in Rumford,” said Craig Denekas, president and CEO of Libra, in a statement. “We are very pleased to complete our phase of involvement by making this gift to the western Maine communities supporting Black Mountain.”
After nine years of operating losses, Shepard hit on a business model that he believes will revolutionize the ski industry. This past winter, Black Mountain dropped day tickets to $15 and season passes to $150 and saw huge increases in new skier visits, lessons and rentals.
The resort lost money in all 10 years of MWSC operation, a total of about $1.5 million that Libra covered. Shepard conservatively projected an operating loss of about $80,000 this winter but profitability the following season.
“I believe that this business model already has the mountain on the path to turning the corner,” said Shepard, noting the average daily ticket price for skiing in the United States last winter was $89. “The rate of loss of baby boomers as skiers is not being met in any degree by the introduction of new skiers. That’s not a promising business model.”
Community ski areas with affordable prices, Shepard said, create a model based on traffic and volume rather than on gross margin per skier visit. Preserving areas such as Black Mountain is critical to the ski industry’s sustainability.
“Gross margin doesn’t send new skiers on to resorts,” he said, “more skiers does.”
That consideration may explain why the nearby Sunday River resort made a $5,000 matching donation to Black Mountain’s cause, along with $10,000 from Franklin Savings Bank and $25,000 from Bangor Savings Bank. Sunday River will also continue to provide expertise and advise to the new ownership.
“My oldest likes it here, but he has a pass at Sunday River,” said Brad Adley, a former Black Mountain board member with three skiing children. “We’re building skiers.”
Adley is also a Franklin Savings Bank director and a member of the Rumford Board of Selectmen. He helped revise downward a town budget proposal that will come up for vote again on Tuesday.
Included in a finance committee article of that budget is $51,000 for Black Mountain.
“So the voters have a chance at funding this again,” Adley said.
He also said the resort’s transfer to local control could result in greater taxpayer support.
“Libra was great and we couldn’t have done this without them,” Adley said. “But I think it was always in the back of people’s minds that they had Big Brother down in Portland taking care of us.
“And they did. Don’t get me wrong. (Former Libra director) Owen Wells and that team is awesome. But now we’re on our own again and we’re going to have to do it. It’s a good day, a good day for Rumford.”