Snowmobiling in Maine was such a draw to a Massachusetts couple that they pulled up their roots, left their lucrative jobs and plunged into the hospitality industry in this small Piscataquis County community.
Through the Internet and with help from a local real estate agent, Cheri Szidat, 42, and Paul Szidat, 46 — who have a son, Christopher, 15 — found and purchased a 120-acre parcel on a snowmobile club trail on Russell Road in Brownville about eight miles from Route 11. There, the family invested their life savings in the development of Wildwoods Trailside Cabins and Lodge, which is located near Schoodic Lake and Katahdin Iron Works.
“We never knew anything about the hospitality industry, but what we did know is how we like to be treated, and being snowmobilers you knew what you’d like to see in a place, so we kind of built it on that premise,” Cheri Szidat, a former insurance trainer and auditor, said this week.
That treatment includes a wilderness getaway featuring comfy and tastefully decorated cabins with all the amenities, and a two-story lodge where hot meals and a bar are offered and guests can enjoy a game room. The lodge, which seats 40 people, and the cabins were built by Levi Farley of Brownville from trees felled on the property.
“We’re avid snowmobilers and we used to haul our sleds up here every weekend and there was never really any place to stay near the trails,” Cheri Szidat said. While her husband owned property in Millinocket where they often stayed, they recognized that others were not so fortunate and the idea to serve was hatched. “He talked me into it. Change is always good, it sounded exciting and it sounded easy at the time,” she said.
But easy it wasn’t. “‘We’ve had so many challenges,” she said.
After the couple started building, Hurricane Katrina devastated Louisiana and surrounding states and the cost of building materials skyrocketed, according to Paul Szidat, a former industrial maintenance worker. Then a job promised to him in Maine disappeared, and the housing market dropped, leaving Cheri Szidat unable to sell her Sturbridge, Mass., property.
If that wasn’t bad enough, the Szidats found that no bank would lend them money.
“Because the economy is so bad, no bank wants to lend to an inexperienced small business within the hospitality industry,” Cheri Szidat said. Bankers told the couple to ask their families for help, which she said they wouldn’t do. Their families have been more than generous, but it’s up to them to make their dream work, she said.
To make ends meet, finish the three cabins and lodge, and build a fire protection pond, the couple diversified their retirements and cashed in the equity to their homes. The avid Harley-Davidson motorcycle riders sold their bikes to pay for the plumbing and Paul Szidat took a full-time appliance repair job.
“We don’t have a big mortgage; it’s $150,000. But because we’re inexperienced, the interest rate is almost 12 percent, so it’s unmanageable, but we can’t quit now. We’re into this and we’re going to make it work,” Cheri Szidat said.
Her husband agreed that their focus is on the future, but he’s angry about their treatment. “It kind of irks me that we can’t get any help for something worthwhile and those two banks that wrote a million bad loans are getting bailed out by the federal government,” he said.
When John and Don Belvin and their families recently closed The Junction General Store and amphitheater in Brownville for lack of financial help and the poor economy, the Szidats’ enthusiasm about their own business wavered a bit because the Belvins had been an inspiration to them.
“Having the Belvins close their store is like when Superman retired,” Paul Szidat said. “Now it’s like, ‘What are we going to do? Our heroes have just closed their doors. What’s going to happen to us?’”
What has happened is that the Szidats have found that while they built the business with tourism in mind, it’s local residents who have patronized them by frequenting the restaurant, booking birthday parties, conferences and family reunions. “The people are phenomenal up here,” Cheri said.
That includes her neighbors, local businesses and town officials, who Cheri said have been very giving of their time and talents. “In regards to the local government, you couldn’t ask for a better community to pick,” she said.
Although they have been too busy to put their full effort into marketing beyond the community, they did get magnetic business cards. While traveling, the couple stop at rest areas where they attach their cards to every boat, snowmobile or all-terrain vehicle they find, to get exposure.
Those who make the trip to the Brownville business can enjoy a homemade meal and a drink in the wildlife-themed lodge, where deer antlers serve as coat racks, scenic paintings of local landmarks by Brownville artist Suzette East decorate the walls, and the fire in a 21-foot-tall rock fireplace warms the body. During summer months, diners can eat on a screened-in porch or on a patio that has another roof-high rock fireplace, both constructed by Justin Finkle of Brownville. Outside, visitors can watch wildlife stop to drink at the man-made pond, which is lighted at night.
Across the driveway, the three 16-foot-by-32-foot log-sided cabins with screened-in porches each have their own furnace, a kitchen, a handicapped-accessible bathroom, on-demand hot water, and two queen and two full built-in beds.
More cabins are planned in the future once finances have been secured, according to Paul Szidat. They hope eventually to sell gasoline at the property, which might draw snowmobilers from the Interconnecting Trail System to the local club trails. They also plan to purchase a hot tub, hold ice-skating parties and harvest festivals, and offer sleigh rides.
“This place really is beautiful, not because we own it. It’s a really pretty setting, a pretty environment, and the ambiance is wonderful.” Cheri Szidat said. “I kinda feel like we’re sitting on a gold mine and we’re waiting for the gold rush to come in.”
The lodge’s business telephone is 965-0000. The restaurant’s hours are 4-9 p.m. Thursday and Friday, 7 a.m. -11 p.m. Saturday, and 7 a.m.-2 p.m. Sunday. The lodge is available Monday, Tuesday and Wednesday for private functions.