Officials at Saddleback Mountain near Rangeley said Monday the ski resort would not open in time for the traditional February school vacation week, plunging the future of the mountain into further uncertainty and raising fresh concerns among pass-holders and local business owners.

The ski resort had been slated to open under new ownership by the end of January, but the sale of the mountain has delayed its opening day and the prospective buyer has not been identified. The company made the announcement that it would not open for the week of Feb.14 on its Facebook page Monday afternoon without offering a specific reason.

Joey Morton, who grew up in Rangeley skiing at Saddleback, said Monday he now doubts the mountain will open at all this winter season.

“It’s been a guessing game, the not knowing. It would’ve been much better to say they weren’t opening,” Morton said. “I never thought I would live long enough to see Saddleback not open.”

Saddleback announced in July that it would close operations if it could not secure $3 million to replace an aging chairlift, and the owners, Bill and Irene Berry, were unable to get the financing. Last month, Saddleback said the Berry family and a prospective buyer had reached an agreement on the terms of the sale and there was hope that the mountain would reopen soon.

Saddleback’s statement Monday did not say when the resort might reopen. Saddleback General Manager Chris Farmer did not return a call Monday seeking comment.

The ski resort has drawn between 80,000 and 100,000 skiers annually for the last four or for five winters.

“The Berry Family has made the decision not to pressure the buyer but to be supportive of the situation,” according to the company statement. “We are very grateful to the condominium owners, season pass holders and local businesses for being so supportive of our position.”

The news is concerning to Rangeley area business owners, since February vacation is typically a week that local hotel and inn owners can count on booking up. But with Saddleback remaining closed, vacancies are what owners are looking at instead.

“That’s the big week,” said Morton, who is also owner of Town and Lake Motel and Cottages. “We book up everything.”

Morton said the cottages are booked up and rented to snowmobilers for next week, but the rooms that typically are rented by Saddleback goers are still vacant.

Saddleback’s uncertainty also comes as businesses are reeling from the effects of a mild winter that hasn’t yet produced much snow, slowing crucial winter tourism.

“The combination of Saddleback not being open and not good conditions in terms of the amount of snow is definitely not having a good impact on the businesses,” said Karen Ogulnick, executive director of the Rangeley Lakes Region Chamber of Commerce.

Rangeley’s viability in the winter is derived largely from its outdoor offerings including snowmobiling, snowshoeing, and downhill and cross-country skiing. Oqulnick said without Saddleback, the businesses could fall back on the influx of snowmobilers the region typically sees, but unseasonably low snow accumulation has kept that sector of tourists at bay.

“Everyone is affected. The restaurants, the grocery store — everyone,” Morton said of Saddleback’s uncertainty. “It’s really hurting the town greatly … especially all the jobs that (Saddleback) provides. They’re just gone and there is no way to replace them.”

Saddleback is the third largest employer in Franklin County during the winter, employing about 350 seasonal workers. There has been no word posted on Saddleback’s Facebook page about the employees left without jobs.

The Berrys bought Saddleback in 2003 and have invested $40 million in the ski area. Farmer told the Portland Press Herald in July that the owners have operated the resort at a financial deficit since 2008.

On Oct. 8, the company posted on its Facebook page that they were in “the midst of serious negotiations with a buyer that plans to open for the winter.” The post promised updates on the sale, but the company announced nothing on the page — its primary source for communicating the progress of the sale — until Dec. 18, the day before Saddleback’s traditional opening day.

The Dec. 18 update said that the Berry family and the new prospective owner felt confident the transaction would be completed in time for a late January opening. With this announcement, Saddleback offered season pass-holders three options for the winter season: waiting for opening day and receiving a 50 percent resort credit added to their season pass; converting their season pass into a gift card; or returning their season pass for a full refund anytime prior to opening day.

The post generated optimistic feedback from skiers excited at the possibility of the mountain opening.

“Hats off to the new owner (and Berry’s too) for stepping up and providing a nice bonus for hanging in there,” wrote Luke Labbe in a comment to the post.

The last eight months of uncertainty have taken a toll on loyal mountain goers, some of whom have invested upwards of $2,000 in season passes, the Portland Press Herald reported in November.

But after Monday’s statement again prolonging an opening day, mountain-goers wrote they were frustrated and starting to wonder if the ski area will open at all.

“I am so tired of the false hope statements,” one Facebook commenter wrote on Saddleback’s announcement. “There’s no way there would be enough staff, snow, etc. to make it financially feasible to open so late in the season.”

Another commenter said he requested his season ticket refund last week and lamented that Saddleback hadn’t made an announcement sooner that it wouldn’t be open in time for February break.

Despite the promise of reimbursement for season passes, people are still disheartened by the lack of transparency throughout the sale process, according to commenters on Saddleback’s Facebook page.

“The new owner seems to have complete disregard for the economic impact on the town and zero respect for its loyal customers,” wrote a commenter. “We have been more than patient, supportive (and) encouraging. But there is a whole community out there still … waiting.”

For its part, Saddleback said in its Monday statement that any update on opening day “will be posted as we receive the information.”

“Saddleback is more than a mountain,” the statement said. “It is a community of people. We are asking for your support as we seek to ensure the longterm viability of this community.”

Lauren Abbate — 861-9252

[email protected]

Twitter: @Lauren_M_Abbate

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