CARRABASSETT VALLEY — This past Monday, as a winter storm pummeled much of the state, Pat Mulligan just tried to keep up.

Co-owner of The Bag and Kettle, an English style pub nestled in the heart of Sugarloaf Village, Mulligan had not anticipated the crush of skiers, snowboarders and merrymakers who would extend their weekend visits to the mountain for another day on the slopes and in the warm confines of his bar and restaurant.

“It was out of control,” Mulligan said. “Luckily, the majority of our customers are repeat customers. They’re Sugarloafers, so they get it.”

That communal spirit is typical for Sugarloaf visitors and employees who pitched in Monday to make another banner day in a winter season that has the mountain and Carrabassett Valley businesses breaking records and breathing a collective sigh of relief.

Much of their good fortune is tied to significant increases in snowfall this season compared to last, with year-to-date totals already nearly double what they were for all of the dismal 2015-2016 winter season. From October 2015 through May 2016, Sugarloaf received 86.5 inches of snow, as mild temperature and a lack of snowfall prevailed much of the time.

This season the mountain has already recorded 160 inches of snow, and there’s still a solid month or more of winter weather yet to come.

The snow has been a welcome change for Maine’s ski industry, said Greg Sweetser, executive director of the Ski Maine Association. Early snow in November and December set Maine’s ski resorts up for a strong start that has put the industry on track for a better than average season.

“On our good years we’ll see 1.3 million visits,” Sweetser said. “Looking forward, I think we’re right on track to break that 1.3 million mark, based on anecdotal information, all the years that I’ve been in the business and seeing the weather and conditions.”

“We’re an optimistic group on any day, and I think people are in a good mood right now,” Sweetser added.

For Sugarloaf, the snow has translated to more skier visits, higher ticket revenue and an all-time record for season pass sales, said Ethan Austin, the mountain’s director of marketing. But even as good winter season news continues to roll in, Austin struck a cautious tone.

“You know whether it all comes out in the wash as an all-time record year, impossible to say right now just because there are so many variables in this business,” he said.

Many of those variables are weather-related. The snow could stop. The area could see a stretch of thaw and freeze events that decimate snow levels (as happened last year), or less snowfall in southern Maine and the rest of New England could put a damper on what locals call “the backyard effect,” wherein people decide to come up to ski because they see snow in their own backyards.

So far, however, Sugarloaf’s season is going well and the mountain’s success ripples out to Carrabassett Valley and wider Franklin County, where the mountain is one of the top three employers, hiring up to 1,000 people for the winter and 250 for summer.

“This winter’s been extraordinary,” said John Beaupre, a local business owner and Carrabassett Valley selectman.

Beaupre, 55, has lived in Carrabassett Valley for 28 years and, along with a partner, owns four grocery and general stores in the area. He said growth at the mountain — which over the last decade has invested in renovations, equipment upgrades and a 2010 expansion to neighboring Brackett Basin and Burnt Mountain — and the surrounding community have been a boon for local businesses.

“The community of Carrabassett Valley has grown exponentially over the last 25 years and my business has grown right with it,” Beaupre said.

Carrabassett Valley’s population increased by more than sixfold over a 30-year period, from 107 people in 1980, to 781 in 2010, according to U.S. Census data.

But a major driver of growth, said town manager Dave Cota, is the $3 million to $5 million spent annually on new home construction. Cota said the town sends out nearly 3,000 tax bills, 90 percent of which go to people who are not full-time Carrabassett Valley residents. In 2017, the state evaluated the town at nearly $600 million.

“It’s been steady. We’ve seen the increased growth and we’ve been very fortunate,” Cota said. “It’s not just important here. It’s important to all the surrounding communities.”

The steady beat of construction is partly a result of collaboration among Sugarloaf, local clubs and businesses, which recognize that their collective futures depend on providing visitors with experiences and a sense of community that creates the kind of die-hard devotees who buy property and return to the area decade after decade.

BUSINESS RELIANCE

For Sugarloafers, as they’re affectionately called, that devotion gets passed down from one generation to the next.

Greg Mackenzie, 45, of Clinton, Massachusetts, said he has been coming to Sugarloaf with his parents, who own a condominium nearby, since he was an infant. Now a father of three, he raised his own children on the mountain. He spent Super Bowl weekend getting his 3-year-old accustomed to skis.

Mackenzie said he kept coming back for the people, noting he has seen the same employees working the mountain since his childhood.

“It’s more of a place where you can go and connect (with people).” Mackenzie said. “It’s such a great place for kids.”

Austin said Sugarloaf takes its responsibility to its visitors and the surrounding area seriously. The mountain is in regular communication with local businesses, keeping them up to date on expected visitor numbers, and collaborating on events and initiatives in the area.

Last season, which Austin said was one of the most challenging in his 10 years with the mountain, Sugarloaf continued making snow through April, which he called “unheard of.” In a typical year the mountain stops snowmaking in February, refreshing in spots through March. But even with visits down and less revenue coming in, Sugarloaf brought on as many staff as usual to, and perhaps more, make snow and run the resort.

“We’re keenly aware that (local businesses) rely on us to get people up here, and I think they’re aware that we rely on them to present the area in a way that makes people want to continue coming up here,” Austin said. “We could have just pulled the plug on that last year and probably saved money in the long run, but we wanted to show a commitment, show our guests but also the local businesses that we were committed to seeing the season through.”

According to one Sugarloaf employee, those efforts did not go unrecognized.

“The snowmaking team got a standing ovation,” said Lew-Ellyn Hughes, who has worked as a children’s ski coach for the mountain for 10 years. “They did a fantastic job.”

Even so, last season swaths of the mountain, including the natural glades of Burnt Mountain, were closed. Hughes said her job ended two weeks earlier than usual because of a lack of snow on the beginner slopes.

Local businesses also felt the squeeze. Kerry Audet, 53, of Winslow, opened his restaurant and bowling alley, The SugarBowl, in May 2015 and said his first year was a struggle. Situated on a snowmobile trail, Audet relies heavily on snowmobile traffic but said last year there wasn’t enough snow for riders to reach him.

“We rely on the winter, and those four or five months are huge. That’s when we make our hay,” Audet said.

LESS SEASONAL

This year Audet’s numbers are looking good. He said on a recent weekend he walked out to find 60 snowmobiles parked in his lot. He’s also bringing in locals, who come in two nights a week for bowling league and on a recent weekday worked with a professional bowler up from Lewiston.

“When we first opened, if you threw a 150 in bowling you were pretty happy. Now if you throw that you’re upset,” Audet said.

While winter is still the area’s most important season, Sugarloaf and the town of Carrabassett Valley are looking to the future. As part of their plans for the region, the mountain, local government and area clubs and businesses have been investing in making the area more attractive for year-round recreation. Those investments include $600,000 over the past six years toward building new mountain bike trails, joint investments in the town’s golf course and Anti Gravity indoor recreation complex, and collaboration with nonprofit Maine Huts and Trails on maintaining and providing access to trails in the Carrabassett Valley area.

“We’re less seasonal than we used to be,” said Beaupre, who also has been a selectman for the last 16 years. “Mountain biking is exploding in the spring, summer and fall. The golf course is back to being in the top 100 in the country. The second homeownership is just blowing up.”

Sugarloaf is expected to change ownership after a New York hedge fund offered an estimated $700 million for Sugarloaf, Sunday River and 12 other ski resorts and other properties.

But Austin said the sale would not affect day-to-day operations, as Boyne Resorts, the company that operates Sugarloaf, is staying on.

“We’re really lucky,” Beaupre said. “This little community right here is extraordinary.”

Kate McCormick — 861-9218

[email protected]

Twitter: @KateRMcCormick