Ski area’s closure ‘devastating’ to local sports

Black Mountain ski area in Rumford
Terry Karkos | Sun Journal
Black Mountain ski area in Rumford
Posted June 27, 2013, at 5:39 a.m.
Last modified June 27, 2013, at 6:21 a.m.

RUMFORD, Maine — It wasn’t quite an avalanche, but the domino effect of Wednesday morning news from Black Mountain of Maine set off a foreboding rumble in the local sports community.

The Rumford ski area’s management team announced that it will cease alpine operations immediately.

While the Maine Winter Sports Center was quick to point out that no final decisions have been made about the mountain’s tradition-rich Nordic program, those with a vested interest in it anticipate the worst.

“I fear that it will also impact Nordic. They shared resources,” Bates College Nordic ski coach Becky Woods said. “Now I think the Nordic will fall to the Chisholm Ski Club, and they have to decide if they have the volunteer base and the ability with their people to keep it going.”

Black Mountain has been a fixture in cross-country ski racing for generations, since it substituted for Lake Placid as host of the world championships in 1950. The site has rolled out the red carpet for national, collegiate and Junior Olympic events regularly since the early 1990s.

To lose the site permanently would have a crippling effect on the college and the many high schools that call it home.

In addition to the annual Bates Carnival, Black Mountain hosts the KVAC and MVC championships, the large Jon Sassi Memorial meet and at least one of the Maine Principals’ Association state championship events each winter.

“It’s a bit concerning. We’ve worked with them for years,” said MPA assistant executive director Mike Burnham, who received the news by phone while attending the National Federation of State High School Associations conference in Denver.

The MPA hosted its entire Class B state meet as well as the Class A Nordic championships at Black Mountain in a partnership with Mount Abram of Locke Mills in February.

Those contracts elapsed at the end of the 2012-13 school year, Burnham said, but the organization was in the process of setting dates and sites for 2013-14 competitions.

“They put in a bid obviously to host it again,” Burnham said. “We were tentatively planning to host at least one championship there.”

While other alpine facilities are available to schools in the tri-county region — Edward Little trains at Lost Valley in Auburn, for example, and Mt. Blue at Titcomb Mountain in Farmington — most major downhill races are traditionally either at Black Mountain or Sugarloaf.

Leavitt and neighboring Mountain Valley are among the local schools that regularly trained and hosted meets in Rumford.

“We’re not supposed to have bad ski news during the summer, right?” said Dustin Williamson, who coaches the Nordic team at Leavitt and manages the Maine High School Skiing web site. “They have done so much for us, Black Mountain and the Chisholm Ski Club, that maybe it’s time for us to do something for them. What that is I don’t know right now. I know we don’t want to lose Black Mountain.”

Perhaps even more valuable to area schools and skiers than Black Mountain’s location it its ability to make snow.

Rain and temperatures in the 40s and 50s — once unthinkable for Maine in January — have become increasingly common. When the grounds around their campuses have turned up bare, Leavitt and other schools have been able to move major meets to Rumford with a simple phone call.

“I remember at least a couple of seasons where every Nordic meet was at Black Mountain,” Williamson said.

Bates has moved much of its Nordic training to Pineland Farms in New Gloucester in recent years, Woods said, due to its proximity.

The Bobcats still made the two-hour round trip to train at Black Mountain on multiple occasions prior to hosting their carnival there each February.

“They are some of the best trails on the East coast,” Woods said. “They’re challenging. They’re fun. They’re some of the only trails available for that level of competition. It would be devastating.

“If it does shut down, it would be such a shame,” she added. “The history speaks for itself. They’ve hosted every national and high school championship you can imagine. Rumford is in so many minds the heart and soul of ski racing.”

Founded in 1924, the Chisholm Ski Club gained momentum in the late 1940s when returning World War II servicemen banded together to develop Black Mountain as a recreational facility.

When Lake Placid had a warmer-than-average winter in 1950, Black Mountain stepped up to host the world championship. The Junior Olympic finals were held in Rumford a year later.

One of the founders was Wendall “Chummy” Broomhall, who went on to become a two-time Olympian and introduced modern machine grooming to the sport. Robert Pidacks, Jim Miller, Jack Lufkin and Frank Lutick Jr. also used Black Mountain as a springboard to their Olympic dreams.

Now 93, Broomhall remains active with the Chisholm Ski Club. He donated 300 acres of his own land around the facility to be used in perpetuity for skiing.

“I’m on my way to a meeting now,” Broomhall said Wednesday afternoon. “I won’t know anything until after that.”

The possible demise of Nordic skiing in Broomhall’s backyard would have a ripple effect far beyond Maine’s borders.

Black Mountain has hosted the U.S. Nordic championships six times, most recently in 2012, and the NCAA Nordic championships on three occasions, lastly in 2009.

Maine Winter Sports Center announced the alpine closure Wednesday in the aftermath of a June 11 referendum, at which the town voted nearly 2-to-1 not to fund Black Mountain.

If there is a bright side to news of the impending closure, Woods said, it is that it could spur the necessary volunteerism and capital to keep the facility alive.

“I’m hopeful that we can rally around it as an extended community. For me, I offer my support and my level of expertise in the Nordic field in terms of how we can keep this going. I wish I had a million dollars in the bank, but that isn’t there,” she said. “I think it will take a little bit of brainstorming and getting people together with the ability to look ahead.”

All interested parties agree that some of that brainstorming must include alternatives if the worst-case scenario becomes reality.

“I’m not quite sure what we would do,” Williamson said. “I think we would have to have some major conversations.”

“Summer is a hard time of year,” Woods added. “You don’t feel the urgency, because it’s summer, but that’s the time all this stuff has to happen.”

koakes@sunjournal.com

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