January 21, 2018
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How a Maine town is working to revive its troubled ski mountain

By Lauren Abbate, BDN Staff
Gabor Degre | BDN
Gabor Degre | BDN
The Camden Snow Bowl can be seen in Camden, Jan. 10, 2017.

Camden Snow Bowl benefited from a solid snowpack and sub-freezing conditions during the recent school break, but town officials know that the town-owned ski mountain’s financial missteps and negative publicity from previous seasons remain fresh in people’s minds.

“We’re all feeling very optimistic, but we do want to be cautious because we realize we’ve had some hard years behind us,” Camden Town Manager Audra Caler-Bell said. “So everybody is still being incredibly diligent about making sure that even though it’s been a good season, we’re keeping costs down.”

Last year, funding problems with the ski area’s $6.5 million redevelopment project came to light when an auditor hired by the Camden Select Board found that town leaders improperly transferred more than $700,000 from Camden’s general fund to the Ragged Mountain Recreation Redevelopment Project.

Prior to the audit, both the town manager and the Snow Bowl manager resigned after two vendors were booted from the Snow Bowl following the town attorney’s discovery that the agreement reached between the town manager, the ski area and the businesses did not follow local zoning rules. The businesses returned to the mountain after gaining proper zoning approvals.

During the summer, the town also settled a fine assessed by the Maine Department of Environmental Protection for destroying a section of forest on the mountain during the redevelopment project. State environmental officials agreed to reduce the fine from about $44,000 to less than $10,000, Caler-Bell said.

Caler-Bell started as town manager in July, and the former Snow Bowl assistant manager, Beth Ward, now serves as the general manager at the ski area.

Both women are well aware that the Snow Bowl’s past problems place the town-owned ski area under a microscope, but they hope good weather and more cost-conscious practices will make this season profitable..

“I really hope that we’ll be able to be in the black and put some money in the bank,” Ward said. “And show that we can be sustainable and efficient in running the ski area.”

The Snow Bowl opened Dec. 22 for a season expected to run through mid-March. Currently, 11 of the mountain’s 17 trails are open.

“We haven’t had the terrain that we’ve had open this year in several, several years,” Ward said.

Spending on the Snow Bowl should be more strategic and transparent this year, Caler-Bell said.

With positive reports from the December vacation week, town and ski mountain leaders will focus on ensuring that the February school vacation week and Toboggan National Championships are profitable.

Proposed major expenses now go to the Select Board, where they can be publicly discussed, as was done earlier this season when a motor that operated a snow pump needed repairs.

“That’s a small example but that’s kind of how we’re approaching everything now,” Caler-Bell said. “We know the Snow Bowl is under a lot of scrutiny in the community, and I think that’s a good thing now, and we’re more than happy to share information on what we’re doing.”

The Snow Bowl also has modified its dealings with food vendors. The Bagel Cafe was selected to run concessions. Any additional food vendors that want to operate on the mountain will have to subcontract with The Bagel Cafe. Those vendors still have to go through the town zoning process.

In the future, Caler-Bell said the town will look to amend zoning ordinances to better fit the short-season vendors at the ski area.

Plans for a new lodge — which was part of the ski area’s ambitious redevelopment project — are on hold as the Ragged Mountain Recreation Area Foundation continues to raise money for it.

“We are kind of just sitting back, letting some wounds heal, and [the foundation] is committed to continuing to fundraise,” Ward said. “I think everybody feels that it’s in our best interest to wait, get a couple of good seasons under our belt and then go back at it.”

Meanwhile, town leaders will explore less expensive ways to develop the mountain and establish it as a multi-season attraction. Expanding the Snow Bowl’s use as a mountain biking season is one option being explored.

Ensuring that the mountain can be used year-round would be another way to buffer the Snow Bowl from poor winter seasons, Caler-Bell said.

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