We’re In This Together

How Black Mountain’s call for help rallied the improbable support of its large in-state competitor, Sunday River

It's a heartbreaking déjà-vu. Struggling local ski area calls press conference to "discuss its future." Community rallies in force—businesses, families, and misty-eyed youngsters offering up piggy banks and allowances—anything to save the mountain, their mountain. The gesture is touching, but the bank is already hanging a foreclosure sign on the base lodge door. Fifty years of history gone under the weight of a stumbling local economy and the revenue-hungry mega-resort down the road.

Black Mountain Ski Resort in Rumford, Maine, called that press conference two weeks ago.

But instead of hearing the ski area's death sentence, an army of local ski families packed into the area's base lodge to learn that Black was on track to reopen in 2013, a resurrection due in part to an unlikely ally: Maine's second-largest resort, Sunday River.

The ski area at Black Mountain has been a Rumford staple since 1962. PHOTO: Black Mountain

Sunday River, which sits just 26 miles west of Black, offered up a match donation to raise funds and vowed to help the small ski area refine its operational practices with snowmaking, grooming, and marketing consulting free of cost. If Black is going to be saved, Sunday River will be part of the solution.

"We look to Black as a partner in a lot senses," says Dana Bullen, the Sunday River Resort President and General Manager. "Skiing is one of those sports you get introduced to and fall in love with, and, let's face it, a lot of us got introduced to skiing at small local areas [like Black], not the big ski resort."

When Rumford's annual June 11 budget votes came around this year, the hard-hit mill town was hesitant to spend precious resources, voting down 34 of its 42 articles and pulling funding from the town library, fire and police departments, and parks. Black Mountain was included in the cuts, losing out on $51,000 it needed for summer and winter maintenance, and three of its employees' wages. Shortly after, Black announced it couldn't open in 2013.

That's when Franklin Savings Bank and Sunday River stepped up and proposed a $15,000 match donation—$10,000 from Franklin and $5,000 from Sunday River—to keep the mountain operational. That initial donation quickly netted over $43,000 of combined funds, according to Andy Shepard, president of the Maine Winter Sports Center, the nonprofit group that owned Black for a decade. It also kicked off a flurry of corporate and private donations from as far away as New Zealand that has generated close to $125,000 in three weeks—more than half of the money Black Mountain needs to open sustainably this season.

"Black Mountain refuses to be deemed irrelevant and disappear," says Shepard .

The ski area at Black has been a Rumford staple since the Chisholm Ski Club opened up downhill and cross-country facilities at the site in 1962. For many years, 470 feet of vertical and a single T-bar introduced Western Mainers to skiing, while the Nordic trail system attracted NCAA and USSA National Championships on a regular basis.

"We're a small mountain, but we do big things," acknowledges local legend Chummy Broomhall, a 92-year-old two-time Olympian and former member of the 10th Mountain Division, who has volunteered and skied at Black since before its inception.

The Maine Winter Sports Center purchased Black in 2003, pumping more than $9 million into upgrades like new lifts, a post-and-beam lodge, and trail cutting to raise the area's skiable terrain to 1,380 vertical feet. A rash of bad snow years and the strain of hosting back-to-back Nordic National Championships nearly collapsed the mountain, but the introduction of an unheralded flat-rate $15 lift ticket saw a 190-percent increase in skier visits in 2012-13. By eliminating discounts and ticket deals, Black figured out it could offer cheap skiing to everyone and make money. People bought in, and visits trended upward through the last day of the season.

The June 11 vote brought momentum to a halt however, as the sputtering municipality of Rumford cut off the town partnership money Black needed to survive. True, Black was on the upswing, but after revolutionizing its ticketing system, the mountain posted a loss in 2012-13, something the electorate deemed unacceptable and cause enough for eliminating a partnership that had been in place for over a decade. Without funding from the town, MWSC and partner The Libra Foundation were forced to pull out, leaving operations in the hands of Black's volunteer board of directors (Shepard admitted that the move to step aside and hand operations to the board was planned, but the town vote, "sped up the time frame."). Shepard offered to stay on until a solution could be reached, but Black's future dimmed.

Simple and small, Black Mountain is the place to introduce beginners to skiing. PHOTO: Black Mountain

The prospect of losing another community ski area unsettled Franklin Savings Bank President Richard T. Wheeler, who called upon lifelong friend Bullen. "We skied together at another local hill, Titcomb Mountain, so he reached out to me and said, 'We can't let Black [Mountain] go,'" says Bullen. "'Here's what we can do, what can you do?'"

In addition to the $5,000 matching grant, Bullen appointed Sunday River Director of Communications Darcy Morse to act as liaison between the two mountains, helping Black run their resort within their financial means and with an eye toward eventual growth. The partnership will also provide advertising and marketing strategy to the local hill. Sunday River and Maine's largest resort, Sugarloaf, had offered support in the past, but this year's partnership provides a more focused effort, Bullen insists. While the large Maine resort wouldn't be able to make all of Black's problems disappear, Sunday River opted to help out rather than bury another piece of local ski history.

"There are a lot of ski areas around the country that look to these community ski areas as competition," explains Shepard. "I had it described to me by a very prominent ski owner that every dollar spent at a community area is a dollar not spent at his ski area. That never resonated with me. I think Sunday River gets that."

The same couldn't be said for the mega-resort 20 years ago, however. Sunday River was once the crowned jewel of American Ski Company, a group that habitually bought out smaller hills like Vermont's Haystack and Pico (in 1991 and 1996, respectively) to keep them from stealing skier revenue from its bigger claims at Mount Snow and Killington.

But in today's world, Shepard and Bullen understand that Black isn't competing financially with Sunday River, and that the partnership actually offers mutual benefit.

"The size of resorts [like Sunday River] are enormous, the parking lots go on for miles, and they can be intimidating and expensive for new skiers, so the community areas are friendlier places to learn to ski," says Shepard. "These community ski areas then become the feeder system for those big alpine resorts."

With the guidance of Sunday River and financial support streaming in from around the country, Black Mountain will open this year, but they're not out of the woods entirely. Despite posting record numbers last year, Shepard conservatively estimates the area won't generate a profit until 2014-15 and it is still about $60,000 short of its $200,000 fundraising goal. If Black raises enough money and establishes set ticket pricing, Shepard thinks that will be enough to revamp Black's snowmaking systems and provide sustainability past this season. However, the fate of the area still lies in the hands of a relatively green 11-person volunteer board and Sunday River intervention after MWSC officially passed the reigns last Friday.

Still, with all the new obstacles standing in Black Mountain's path, Western Maine skiers have a second chance to get things right—and they know it. Kids in Rumford have already planned a 5km road race on August 10 to help raise more money for their winter playground, and Bangor Savings Bank has announced a $25,000 matching donation that will push donations close to Black's magic number. Black's board of directors is also actively seeking more corporate sponsorship.

When Black Mountain announced that it was in financial troubles, its bigger competitor down the street, Sunday River, came to its rescue. PHOTO: Steve Fuller

The struggle for Black Mountain's survival has resonated statewide, as most Mainers remember planting their alpine roots in small ski areas, far from the lands of fixed quads and paved parking lots. For them, Black symbolizes what helped them fall in love with skiing in the first place, and they're not ready to let that go—even if that means a ski area helping another ski area.

"The small mountain has one of those places in my heart," says Bullen. "Just growing up and knowing what the atmosphere is in those places… We want to put an emphasis on helping where we have the ability to help, because we want those guys to exist and keep existing."

If you want to donate to Black Mountain’s cause, click here.