A Different Kind of Ski Resort Buyout

After a season of Vermont resorts changing hands faster than a deck of cards, there’s a new resort in New England in play. The fate of Maine’s third largest mountain, Saddleback, was decided today and after two years of sitting idle. the bull wheels may turn again this winter.

Over the last few years, Saddleback has been in limbo as a group of Rangely locals tried to save their mountain, forming the Saddleback Mountain Foundation and working with the New England Forestry Foundation to raise the $12 million needed to operate it as a non-profit venture. Since the fall, the partnership was looking to raise the last $4 million and was getting close, thanks to a capital campaign that would give major donors lifetime membership.

The lodge at Saddleback, Me. All photos courtesy Saddleback

On June 20, foundation chair Dr. Peter Stein wrote an open letter on the group’s Facebook page: “My dear Saddlebackers, we have everything we need for success except that signed agreement. We have been here before with rumors the mountain has sold. We shall see. But if and when we get the opportunity, the Saddleback Mountain Foundation stands ready to Rock and Roll.”

Now it’s rocking and rolling, but it was too little, too late.  At a press conference held at the mountain today, former owners Bill and Irene Berry were on hand, along with members of Maine’s congressional delegation, as the 723-acre resort was turned over to announce that the resort was being bought by not locals, or even a U.S. ski resort company but the Majella Group of Australia, a major property and development group. CEO Sebastian Monsour,  was been working to develop a 300-apartment building in Portland and a large hotel, the Broadway, in Woolloongabba, Australia.

Majella’s proposed Casco Bay apartment development.

It was shock to many locals and to those who had worked hard to preserve the resort. But as Saddleback Mountain Foundation’s acting executive director, Wolfe Tone wrote: “The Saddleback Mountain Foundation (SMF) applauds the effort of the future owners of Saddleback Mountain and the Berry family. We wish them the best for this vibrant mountain and are excited for the lifts to be spinning again.”

More updates to come.

Text of press release:

Rangeley, ME: MAJELLA GROUP is pleased to announce it has signed an asset purchase agreement to secure ownership of Saddleback Mountain Resort in Rangeley, Maine. The purchase includes all holdings of Saddleback Mountain Resort, including the resort, base lodge, ski lifts and surrounding timberland, totaling 6,337 acres.

The historic deal was struck between Bill and Irene Berry of Farmington, Maine, and Majella Group CEO Sebastian Monsour of Brisbane, Australia, and is expected to finalize later this summer. Mr. Monsour made the announcement at a press conference at Saddleback Lodge this morning, which was attended by Rangeley community leaders, representatives from Maine’s congressional delegation, and other dignitaries.

Mr. Monsour said after many months of discussion, planning, and due diligence, he was delighted to announce a decisive agreement had been reached. “On behalf of my entire team, we look forward to getting to know the Western Maine community and working with the Town of Rangeley to revive this magnificent property,” he said. Mr. Monsour said the company hopes to realize the vision of a premiere, four-season resort that this region of Maine deserves.

“Our team understands the importance of Saddleback to the people of Maine, not only as an exceptional ski mountain, but as an economic driver for the entire Rangeley region. We hope to attract more people to the area and expose them to all it has to offer. We are excited to dig in and get to work,” Mr. Monsour said.

After being closed for two seasons, Mr. Monsour said the Majella Group and its local management team recognizes that re-opening the mountain is a top priority for the Rangeley community and its loyal constituents, including the many property owners on the mountain.

“Replacing the Rangeley Chair and T-Bar are at the top of our list, and from Mother Nature’s perspective, we are already up against the clock,” Mr. Monsour said. The Majella Group has engaged Doppelmayr, the world’s leading manufacturer of ski lifts, to begin the process. The Rangeley Double Chair will be replaced with a new TRISTAR Fixed Grip Quad Chair Lift that can support 1,500 skiers per hour. The Cupsuptic T-Bar will be replaced with a new Wind Resistant, Higher- Speed Surface Lift that can support 1,200 skiers per hour. When completed, Saddleback will feature one of the newest lift systems in all New England.

An opening schedule has not yet been determined. “Our commitment is not to over promise, but to move expeditiously and communicate transparently. We have much work to do. Please know, as soon as our team believes we can deliver a skiing experience that is consistent with our values and meets the needs of our skiing community, we will announce our plans for re-opening.” Mr. Monsour said.

Transition from the Berry Family

To facilitate a smooth transition, the Berry family and Majella Group have agreed to a written operating agreement. The agreement allows the Majella Group to perform the work required to prepare for re-opening, including assessment of the ski lifts.

“Saddleback is a fantastic place. I have skied there since 1971,” said Bill Berry in a prepared statement. “Hearing that Saddleback was closing in 2003, my family purchased and upgraded the mountain to the best of our ability.

From Queensland to Maine

Sebastian Monsour and his father Frank discovered Maine in 2011. The pair spent a few nights on the Portland waterfront and quickly fell in love with the city and its surrounding area. Agreeing that Maine was a spectacular place with great, untapped potential, they started to create a vision for investing in the area.

In 2011, Professor Frank Monsour purchased the Williston West Church in Portland, Maine, for his wife, Elizabeth, and began renovations to include offices and accommodation for the Majella Group. Several years later, son Sebastian toured the Western Mountain region with retired Maj. Gen. John W. Libby and Majella CEO – Western Region and former Portland Fire Chief Fred LaMontagne. Sebastian became captivated by the natural beauty and historic significance of the Rangeley Lakes Region and Saddleback’s unique potential.

The Story of Saddleback

Advertised as “The Sun Valley of the East,” Saddleback first opened on December 31, 1960 with a T- Bar and a lodge. Since then, the 4,120-foot mountain has been under the ownership of only a handful of individuals, including the Guy Gannett Publishing Company, former Sugarloaf General Manager John Christie, and Massachusetts businessman Donald Breen. In 2003, Maine residents Bill and Irene Berry purchased the mountain. The family invested in the mountain, added a new base lodge, installed two new quad chairlifts, added new trails and expanded snowmaking and glade skiing.

In July 2015, the Berry family announced they would not start winter operations unless they could replace the Rangeley Double Chair lift. The mountain has remained closed since that time.

Vision for the Future

The Majella Group shares the vision of transforming Saddleback into a premiere four-season resort that can become a destination for visitors from all over the U.S., Canada, and abroad.

“We believe Saddleback requires a plan to create more lodging, more restaurants, and additional on-mountain opportunities,” Mr. Monsour said. “We want to attract significantly more visitors to Rangeley in all four seasons and create a mountain experience that complements and energizes the Rangeley business community,” he added.

The Majella Group plans to retain a local mountain operations management team. Long-time Saddleback manager Jim Quimby will head up Mountain Operations. Rangeley residents Greg Andrews and Perry Williams will complete the management team, along with Majella CEO – Western Region Fred LaMontagne, who will serve as the resort’s Chief Executive Officer and focus on long-range planning and strategic operations. Retired Maj. Gen. John W. Libby will continue to advise Majella with regards to the mountain.

Mr. Monsour said the Majella Group looks forward to welcoming back these individuals, and many other valued Saddleback team members, to round out a top-notch service-oriented team as it starts work on the mountain.

 

Full text of Dr. Stein’s June 20 letter:

Amidst the swirl of rumors that it is a done deal, and that our beloved mountain has been sold to a foreign investment group with big plans, there are several things I wanted to share with you, so I am writing this week’s newsletter. The first is how incredibly proud I am of where the Saddleback Mountain Foundation has come under Wolfe Tone’s guidance while I attended to my business responsibilities at Scientific Solutions, Inc.

Now, here are the facts of this journey we have taken together over the past many months, as they are known to us.

The Saddleback Mountain Foundation has a mission built on five outcomes:

  1. Preservation of the mountain and it’s ski area vibe as we knew and loved it;
  2. Educational programs that use the mountain to inspire personal growth experiences;
  3. Access to the mountain for all without financial barriers;
  4. Climate change research using the Arctic environment our mountain provides, with a thrust towards vital research for the survival of New England skiing while dealing with the challenges of global warming;
  5. Engineering research into renewable energy for the ski industry, because, quite frankly, our mountain like most ski areas, is an energy hog with an untenable carbon footprint.

Combining the first letter of each of our mission outcomes spells PEACE – how can you beat that?

To continue: Our plan to own and run Saddleback as a non-profit ski area and implement PEACE is well vetted and exciting;
We need $12 million total to fully enable this plan for success, and we know where we need to go to raise the cash once we have a signed agreement with the current owners;

We have the New England Forestry Foundation as a dedicated partner, committed to providing a $500,000 deposit and purchasing $2,800,000 of land and managing it for conservation, taking us a good ways to the $12,000,000;

We have approximately $150,000 left of the $300,000 gifted for operating funds that has brought us to this point, and this can take us to the Purchase and Sale or Definitive Agreement;

We have roughly $700,000 in cash from the sales of memberships safe in escrow, and another $300,000 or so in sales on credit card sales that were never processed;

We have a highly committed Board of Directors with seven members: Luke Labbe – Treasurer, Carol Millhouse – Secretary, Chad Cloutier – Finance, Vittorio Pareto – Finance, Steve Philbrick – Guest services, Bill Richards – Education, and myself as Chairman;

We have an outstanding legal team at the law firm Drummond Woodsum that has guided us in drafting our bylaws, organizational documents, and 501(c)(3) tax exempt application, to name three;

We have an Acting Executive Director in place, an organizational plan that draws on the strength of the mountain team, and the prospects of a great General Manager who wants to be part of the Saddleback community;

We have submitted our 501(c)(3) application to the IRS, we know it to be under review, and it is not inconceivable we can receive tax exempt status by late summer;

We are confident that our plan, within a few years, although challenging will result in resort operations that are profitable, with all those profits staying on the mountain;

We have a mission statement that requires us to put in place grant programs that on top of the resort being profitable will result in a thriving four seasons resort;

We had a Letter of Intent with the owner that was ready for signature way-back-when and we stand ready to dust that off and continue the negotiations.

Skillfully,
Dr. Peter J. Stein
President and Chairman of the Board of the Saddleback Mountain Foundation”

 

Lisa Lynn

After traveling around the world and skiing in more than 50 resorts, I settled in Vermont. I love it here and love working with my family editing VT SKI + RIDE and Vermont Sports.