Mt. Abram rebuilds after fire, looking for snow

Matt Hancock, owner of the Mt. Abram ski hill in Greenwood, talks about his plans to open the ski mountain on time for the season, despite the fact that he had to replace the main lodge, after it destroyed by fire following a lightning strike in July.
Matt Hancock, owner of the Mt. Abram ski hill in Greenwood, talks about his plans to open the ski mountain on time for the season, despite the fact that he had to replace the main lodge, after it destroyed by fire following a lightning strike in July.
Posted Dec. 02, 2011, at 10:40 p.m.
Workers prepare the new parking lot and approach to the new lodge at Mt. Abram ski hill in Greenwood. The new lodge is visible in the background on Nov. 29, 2011.
Workers prepare the new parking lot and approach to the new lodge at Mt. Abram ski hill in Greenwood. The new lodge is visible in the background on Nov. 29, 2011.

GREENWOOD, Maine — Matt Hancock was coaching his daughter’s basketball team on July 6, when he got the call from his wife that the Mt. Abram ski lodge was ablaze.

In this small community, the news went viral in a rural way — people calling their friends and showing up at the Mt. Abram parking lot to watch the firefighters pump thousands of gallons of water on the burning lodge.

Hancock, who had bought the ski area with business partner Rob Lally in 2008, stood and watched with them.

“You’re trying to process this whole thing,” Hancock remembered. “Everyone’s alive, no one’s hurt … what the hell are we going to do now?”

Five months after a lightning strike destroyed the lodge, Mt. Abram has rebuilt, using the disaster to focus on the core of the business. A sprawling, piece-built lodge that was constructed in fits and starts over the past 50 years has been replaced by a modern, minimalistic building that Hancock is considering nicknaming “The Igloo.”

“It’s not the Timberline Lodge at Mt. Hood, it’s not the Grand Summit at Sunday River. We believe it will keep true to who we are,” said Hancock. “It’s going to be warm. It’s going to be lit. It’s going to be heated with nonfossil fuel.”

And it’s going to be open in time for this season.

They broke ground on Sept. 19. The plan is to be done on Dec. 9. Hancock had hoped to open the mountain for skiing on Dec. 10, but the warm weather has pushed the opening date to Dec. 17.

The quick turnaround was key. The main lodge had housed Mt. Abram’s ticket area, store, cafeteria, restaurant, restroom, retail store, utility rooms, offices and more. They had stored equipment there for the summer, from walkie-talkies to computers, uniforms to ski jackets.

Mt. Abram needed a new lodge and couldn’t afford to miss the first month or two of the ski season. While the season is seen as a 20-week span, in many ways it’s really only a two-week business, he said: the Christmas break week and the weeklong school break in February. Those two weeks are critical — sort of a black Friday for the ski industry.

Hancock saw several factors that allowed for the relatively quick turnaround.

The business is well-insured, Hancock said, and he and his management team would go over the policy each year, reading through it and making adjustments as needed. For example, this year they decided to increase the insurance levels for business-interruption expenses, because Mt. Abram’s business had been increasing year-over-year.

Knowing the policy inside and out and having appropriate coverage were key, he said.

Another factor was that Hancock reached out to Gov. Paul LePage’s administration to ensure that permitting, plan reviews and other state requirements were met in a timely fashion.

“Knowing the governor has a professed affinity for clearing up red tape, it seemed like the perfect time to call his office,” said Hancock.

Hancock worked with Deb Neuman, deputy director of the Department of Economic and Community Development.

“The key issue was getting them open in time for the season, recognizing they need to be back in business,” said Neuman. “Coming from having owned a seasonal business — a tour boat company — I can completely relate to that. You can’t miss a day.”

Neuman said she got all the key decision makers at a meeting with Mt. Abram officials to review the plans and discuss how to get the project done expeditiously. It was important to get the business running again, in particular to support the 115 seasonal jobs it generates, Neuman noted, and for the community, as well.

“It’s a community asset, for sure — it impacts a lot of folks and families and tourism,” she said.

The requirements didn’t go away, said Hancock, and most made sense. Many fell into the categories of public safety and Americans with Disabilities Act compliance.

“We’d do these things anyway,” said Hancock. “We just needed it done with haste.”

One requirement that didn’t make sense was the number of bathroom stalls mandated by the state. Under the plan, the state would require about 30 stalls, “more bathrooms than the Maine Mall,” said Hancock. But given how well everything else went, he views that more as comic relief than anything else. They’re still trying to lower that number.

The last, important factor was understanding exactly what the Mt. Abram ski business is all about, said Hancock.

Much of the ski industry consolidated in recent decades, became more corporate as they focused on developing slope-side real estate into condos and other posh amenities such as spas and sushi bars. Mt. Abram, said Hancock, is still a privately owned, skier- and rider-centric “soulful enclave,” he said.

Hancock sees the mountain as a place for people to get away from the grind, enjoy time outdoors with friends and family and do it at reasonable prices. Since they bought the business, they’ve been focusing on that message — the simplicity, the family atmosphere. And consumers have responded, said Hancock. The year before he and Lally bought the business, Mt. Abram had 24,000 skier visits. The first year they owned it, there were 33,000. Next year, 37,000. And the year after that, 40,000-plus.

So when they considered what they needed to construct for a replacement, they had a clear idea of what was important to the business and its customers and what was unnecessary.

The result is utilitarian, but laid out in such a way to get ski families in, through restrooms if necessary, booted up and on the hill. When they’re cold and ready for a break, the dining area, cafeteria, restaurant and lockers are all accessible and easy to navigate. The ticketing operations were in the main lodge; they’re now share space in a renovated equipment rental building.

The Igloo is a big Rubb building — sort of a high-tech metal frame and heavy coated fabric structure made by the Rubb Group in Sanford. The same buildings can be seen around the state — at the Portland Sports Center, the Sprague Energy terminal on Commercial Street in Portland and at the Federal Marine Terminal in Eastport.

The floor is stamped-concrete with radiant heating. The heat will be provided by a wood pellet heating system installed by Maine Energy Systems, a local company.

Another local company, Schiavi Home Builders, built a prefab building to house the restrooms and kitchen; it will be attached to the Rubb building.

“When you get hit by lightning, you’re supposed to be listening,” Hancock reflected. “Soulfulness doesn’t exist in a building or in a chair lift. It’s in the people.”

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