GREENVILLE, Maine — The owner of Big Squaw Mountain Resort issued a public challenge Thursday to the Piscataquis County commissioners.
Upset that county officials have been criticizing his operation of the ski resort, owner James Confalone offered to lease the resort to the county for $1 a year for 30 years, but county officials would have to act on the lease within 60 days.
“If they feel they can do a better job, that this is not being run the way they would like, then I’m willing to lease the county the ski area, the lifts, the ski shop, all the equipment, and everything that’s there in the ski area,” Confalone said Thursday in a telephone interview. The hotel and upper restaurant would be excluded from the lease, he said.
Big Squaw Mountain Resort is located on what the state now calls Big Moose Mountain.
Commissioner Eric Ward wondered on Thursday why Confalone would make such a proposal through the press rather than present it in person to the commissioners. “This is all news to me,” he said.
Asked Thursday evening whether he would submit his proposal in writing to the commissioners, Confalone said he would not but that his offer is genuine.
Ward declined to comment on the substance of Confalone’s proposal. Commissioners Tom Lizotte and Fred Trask could not be reached for comment.
County Manager Marilyn Tourtelotte, however, said Thursday evening that she had spoken with Ward and Trask earlier in the day and both agreed that if the ski resort were fully operational and no county funds were needed for capital improvements, they would seek legal advice on whether the county could enter into such an agreement.
Confalone’s challenge came after county officials held a public hearing Tuesday in Greenville to discuss whether to continue to plow the county-owned access road to the resort. Confalone, who was out of state, did not attend the meeting, nor did he send a representative.
After the hearing, the commissioners voted to continue to sand and plow the 1.65 miles of road. Last winter, residents in the Unorganized Territory paid $10,725 for winter maintenance on the road.
The major reason for the public hearing, Lizotte said Tuesday, was to determine whether the public benefits from the county’s plowing of a road to a private business. “We called the public hearing at the request of several citizens in the Greenville area who feel the answer to that question is no,” he said.
The commissioners have heard people argue over the years that the business was not being operated consistently as a full-service ski resort, although Confalone contends he has been doing just that.
Confalone, who said he spent millions of dollars fixing up the resort property before the economy took a dive, told the Bangor Daily News on Thursday that he was upset over comments made by Lizotte that he claimed had damaged his business.
“Without any knowledge of the facts, he went and crucified us before he even called me or checked with any of us,” he said.
At a 2007 public hearing, Lizotte said one of Confalone’s representative’s “pledged” that the mountain would be operational as a full-fledged ski resort, so the commissioners continued to maintain the road. After hearing from residents since then that the mountain was not fully operational, the commissioners revisited the issue in June, he said.
At that June meeting, Lizotte said Confalone had not done what he had indicated he would do: keep the resort fully functional.
“Basically, the county is plowing a road to a private business that isn’t being maintained as a business,” he said in June.
One resident who spoke at Tuesday’s public hearing in Greenville called the business “dysfunctional.” Several other residents said the rejuvenation and operation of the business as a full-scale ski resort was of paramount importance to the local economy, but they were less than optimistic that would occur under Confalone’s ownership.
The residents encouraged the commissioners to continue to plow the road because the region’s youth ski programs use the facility free of charge for practice during the week in winter. The youngsters are towed up the mountain behind a snowmobile and then ski down, commissioners were told.
Commissioners Ward and Trask said the county tried to work with Confalone to secure state funds and to form a tax-increment financing district to allow the full operation of the ski resort, but Confalone later rejected those efforts.
“We’ve offered to pretty much work with the owner of the facility to do anything we possibly can to get to that end result, but it takes two to tango, and I feel like I’m dancing with no one in my arms,” Lizotte said.
Confalone said Thursday that those state funds came with too many strings attached and would have required higher pay scales for his employees, which in turn would have resulted in higher lift fees than the $25 a day charged now.
Although Confalone admitted Thursday that the resort’s hotel is closed and the mountain has no snow-making equipment, he said the “lower mountain” at the ski facility has been consistently open on school vacations, holidays and all weekends during the winter months and draws skiers from throughout the region. He said he employs eight to 10 people during the winter season.
That’s in contrast to the approximately 143 workers employed in the ski resort’s heyday, residents noted at the public hearing Tuesday.
“It sounds like the mountain is woefully undercapitalized and on a shoestring,” Lizotte said.
Confalone reiterated that he has been working as hard as possible to improve Big Squaw Mountain Resort and noted he has invested a considerable amount of money. But he said he’s tired of the negative comments about his business.
“If [the commissioners] think they can do such a great job, better than me, then pony up to the bar,” Confalone said.