DOVER-FOXCROFT, Maine — By taking no action, Piscataquis County commissioners on Tuesday passed up an offer to assume part of the operation of the privately owned Big Squaw Mountain Resort and Ski Area.
Upset over criticism leveled by county officials about his limited operation of the business, owner James Confalone in August offered the county a 30-year lease to the lower ski lift and lower restaurant at a cost of $1 a year. The offer excluded the upper mountain ski area, hotel and upper restaurant.
Piscataquis County Commissioners Fred Trask, Tom Lizotte and Eric Ward, County Manager Marilyn Tourtelotte and attorney Erik Stumpfel met with Confalone in executive session on Oct. 6 to discuss the proposal and tour the facility.
Although the state renamed Squaw Mountain to Moose Mountain in earlier years because Maine Indians found the word “squaw” highly offensive, Confalone retained the word in the name of his business.
Confalone said earlier this year he had spent millions of dollars fixing up the resort property before the economy took a dive. While the upper ski lift, resort and restaurant have been closed in recent years, the lower mountain has been open only on weekends and school vacations, depending on Mother Nature since the mountain has no snowmaking equipment.
Chairman Lizotte said the commissioners on their recent visit found the property and buildings in various stages of renovation.
“To summarize [that meeting], we see great potential in the ski area, however there is a gap between the potential and the reality that we experienced on the mountain,” Lizotte said. “We think it’s the place for private enterprise and the owner himself to close that gap; we don’t see how having the county involved in the operation of the mountain would provide public benefit.”
In order for the public to benefit, the entire mountain would have to be part of the deal, Commissioner Fred Trask suggested.
“If you’re going to operate the mountain, you’ve got to operate the whole thing, not just part of it,” he said.
Asked for comment by telephone Tuesday, Confalone said he still was upset that Lizotte had not apologized for his earlier comments about the mountain’s operation, which he said had damaged the business. Confalone declined to say whether the lower lift and mountain would be open this winter.
“I don’t make promises,” he said, noting that whatever he does with his property is strictly his business.
Commissioner Eric Ward said Tuesday it would be nice if the county could help facilitate someone else leasing the facility without complications, but Ward said he didn’t see that happening.
“It’s like having a gold mine and not having any way to take advantage of it,” he said of the property, which has a wide-ranging view of the Moosehead Lake region. “It’s in the county’s best interest to have a four-season resort on that mountain; it’s not in the county’s best interest to be the one to operate that,” he said.
Lizotte concurred. “Is it a proper role of county government or any other government to step in and take the role of private enterprise?” he asked. “My conviction and the answer to that question is no in 99 percent of the cases.”
He, on behalf of the board, wished Confalone luck in taking the mountain to its full potential.