A rendering of Saddleback House, a 100-bed workforce housing project proposed for Saddleback Mountain in Franklin County. The effort kicked off fundraising Tuesday with the announcement of a $1.5 million donation toward the $4.5 million build.

SANDY RIVER PLANTATION — A Wayne couple who grew up skiing at Saddleback Mountain donated $1.5 million Tuesday toward new workforce housing, a 100-bed ski-in, ski-out and bike-in, bike-out complex.

The Saddleback House project has $1 million left to raise in donations and $2 million to secure from other sources before breaking ground, which officials hope will happen in late spring.

“We see this as a moment of transformation for Saddleback and we’re really excited about what Arctaris is doing there,” said Fritz Onion, who made the donation with his wife, Susan. “We think it could be transformative for Rangeley. We grew up in Farmington, not far away, and it’s a place that means a lot to us.”

An interior rendering of the dorm-style, 100-bed Saddleback House at Saddleback Mountain.

Arctaris Impact Fund bought Saddleback Mountain in 2020 and reopened it last winter. When the resort closed under the former owners in 2015, it was the largest employer in the region with up to 300 seasonal employees.

Chris Massi, Saddleback’s director of development, said after that closure, much of the temporary workforce housing people had lived in shifted use, with owners opting for short-term rentals like Airbnb or Vrbo to make more money.

The resort is back up to 188 employees this winter, fortunate to have filled all of the openings, he said, and had to help 40 people find housing, “but we could have used twice that number of rooms this winter for the workforce.”

That’s also part of the reason that initial plans to build just a 40-bed workforce housing complex next year were revisited.

“We would have filled up before we opened,” Massi said. “Saddleback needs more beds and Rangeley needs more workforce beds. This is bigger than Saddleback. We know that for the region to continue to thrive we needed more accommodations for workforce. Thanks to the gift from Susan and Fritz Onion, we can actually think bigger. This quite literally would not have been possible without the Onions.”

Fresh snow on Saddleback Mountain on Sunday. Kyle Haley Photography

Plans call for Saddleback House to accommodate 100 resort employees in the winter and seasonal workers from other businesses in the Rangeley area the rest of the year. It will be near the base of the South Branch lift.

“In the peak summer season, almost all of our restaurants were closed one or two days a week because they didn’t have sufficient staffing; a lot of that comes back to staff not having a place to live,” Massi said.

The hope is to break ground in the spring and work toward an opening next winter.

The Onions made their donation to Saddleback through the Venn Foundation out of St. Paul, Minnesota. The couple heads the private, charitable Onion Foundation, based in Auburn, which has given grants to more than 300 Maine nonprofits, according to its website. The funds to Saddleback, however, were from them as a couple, not their foundation, according to Massi.

Fritz Onion said he raced at the mountain in high school in both Nordic and alpine skiing.

“My wife and I used to ski there quite a bit,” he said and went back last winter after the resort reopened. “If we can do our small part and make this come to fruition, it would be really satisfying to see.”

This story was updated at 7:11 a.m. to correct that the Onions are from Wayne.

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