With $150,000 raised, Bigrock supporters optimistic about opening ski area for winter

Posted Sept. 19, 2013, at 4:34 p.m.

MARS HILL, Maine — When The Maine Winter Sports Center announced on Aug. 6 that it was ending its relationship with the Bigrock Mountain Alpine Ski Area in Mars Hill and turning over ownership to the community, fears quickly mounted that the ski lifts that were frozen in the spring would never thaw.

While fundraising efforts continue, supporters have managed to raise more than $150,000 so far. Bigrock’s operations manager said Thursday that he is optimistic the amount will be enough to keep the ski area open through the winter.

On Thursday, First Wind donated $15,000 to the Friends of Bigrock, a group formed to assist with raising money to open the mountain this winter and continue operations in coming years.

First Wind built and operates the 42 megawatt Mars Hill Wind project, which was the company’s first project to go online in Maine when it achieved commercial operations in March 2007. The Mars Hill Wind project is on the same mountain as the ski area.

Bill Getman, general manager at Bigrock, said he was grateful for the generous donation from First Wind, as well as from other donors this past month.

Maine Winter Sports Center ended a 13-year relationship with Bigrock when it made its announcement on Aug. 6. Earlier this summer, the organization also announced it was stepping away from Black Mountain in Rumford after 10 years of ownership. Rumford-area community members quickly raised the necessary funds to take over operations of Black Mountain.

Andy Shepard, president and CEO of Maine Winter Sports Center, said when he made the announcement that MWSC always envisioned turning the mountain over to “a nonprofit, community-based ownership.” He added that after 13 years of ownership, that time had come.

Initially, Friends of Bigrock announced they were looking to raise $150,000. Ryan Guerrette, operations manager at Bigrock, said Thursday that the money was needed to transfer ownership of the ski area from the MWSC to Bigrock’s board of directors. He said that while the process remains ongoing and nothing is yet official, he is optimistic that Bigrock will open this winter.

“We should hear something next week,” he said. “We received such tremendous support to raise $150,000 in about 40 days. We secured $30,000 through an online campaign and the rest through corporate donations from businesses in Aroostook County and Western New Brunswick.”

Getman said the monetary goal now has been increased to $300,000 to ensure funding to support a turnaround plan that the mountain leadership believes will take three years.

He said that the plan would be to continue to grow the reach of the mountain to the Bangor and Western New Brunswick region, to reduce mountain operations expenses by engaging volunteers and to reach a breakeven status within three years.

Maine Winter Sports purchased the ski area in 1999 and, since then with the Libra Foundation, invested more than $6 million in improving the facility, including by expanding the snowmaking systems, and adding a new triple chairlift and a tubing park.

With 980 feet of vertical drop, Bigrock Mountain is the tallest ski area in northern Maine and the Canadian Maritimes, according to Shepard.

Maine Winter Sports also owns the Nordic Heritage Center in Presque Isle and the 10th Mountain Ski Area in Fort Kent. Shepard said there are no plans to step away from those two nordic ski facilities.

Donations may be made at www.gofundme.com/save-BigrockMountain.

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