‘We can’t operate the ski area like we used to’

Camden Select Board pledges oversight of Snow Bowl spending, approves $920,000 budget

Posted:  Thursday, August 4, 2016 - 2:00pm

CAMDEN — The Camden Snow Bowl will open for business this winter with a $920,000 budget, increased ticket prices, fewer complimentary passes, and a goal of operating for a minimum of 60 days. The town’s Select Board has vowed to review the finances of the mountain every two weeks during the season, citing its need to hold management, and itself, accountable to the taxpayer. And the Snow Bowl’s director is entering the new season firm in his opinion that the alpine ski facility must continue to establish its operational standards and level of service to the skiing community.

There has been much conversation about the Snow Bowl getting too ambitious, said Director Landon Fake, talking Aug. 3, the day after the town’s Select Board unanimously approved the $920,000 budget that he had requested.

That was illustrated by Select Board member Marc Ratner, who said at the board’s Aug. 2 meeting: “I’m concerned that this is a Rolls Royce budget for a Chevrolet mountain. It’s still not a huge ski destination for people from out of state.”

But Fake countered in a later conversation that the Camden Snow Bowl is no longer a small community ski area.

“That is of the past,” said Fake. “That Snow Bowl doesn’t exist, anymore. You can’t take the ski area and operate it like we used to. It is now larger than half the ski areas in Maine.”

The Snow Bowl has 40 percent more terrain now, he said, and “we groom and make snow to much different standards.”

Likewise, the staff has grown in size.

Ragged Mountain, which is home to the Camden Snow Bowl, is now drawing skiers from farther away than the Midcoast, and even Maine. That’s the goal, Fake said. To draw more winter visitors to Camden and the region.

“It’s not a crazy idea that we could have a high-quality ski area,” Fake said, referencing ski areas in Pennsylvania that experience fluctuating winter temperatures as the Snow Bowl does, being close to the ocean. “It’s not like we are an anomaly.”

The discussion about what the Snow Bowl is in peoples’ minds rose briefly during the long consideration of the Snow Bowl’s 2016-2017 budget at a regularly scheduled Select Board meeting Aug. 2 meeting. But the agenda was focused on the budget, and how big it should be to operate an alpine ski facility that is still undergoing an $8.5 million redevelopment.

The Snow Bowl has had its share of setbacks since initiating the redevelopment in March 2014. Environmental degradation and infractions from the over-cutting of trees, to lousy ski weather, from equipment issues with the new three-man chairlift to the death of the mountain’s operations manager, and to a cumulative $300,000 deficit resulted in overall pain at the Snow Bowl. But the community stepped forward last spring, and with differing perspectives and many opinions about how to control the budget, tackled the Snow Bowl issues, peeling back layers of budgetary processes and practices.

“Saying anything critical about the Snow Bowl is regarded like making fun of a Gold Star Mother,” said Camden Select Board member Leonard Lookner, toward the end of the discussion, when the board took its vote.

“Fool me once, shame on you,” he said. “Fool me twice, shame on me. I want accountability. If this budget doesn’t work, I want serious accountability. I want monthly reports to the Select Board about where we are financially and let us make some of the choices. I am willing to go along with the budget as long as there is understanding that the community is going to hold accountable those responsible for the budget.”

Board Chairman John French turned to Lookner, and said, “It’s all of us.”


$800,000 budget versus $920,000

At their Aug. 2 meeting, Select Board members approved the ski area budget following a long discussion that included citizens either endorsing the $920,000 budget or advocating for a leaner $800,000 budget.

T.C. Bland, a Camden resident who grew up skiing at the Snow Bowl, and who was recently the chairman of the Snow Bowl’s FY17 Budget Team that helped management scrutinize and form a new budget, said: “There area two schools of thought. Go small or go big.”

The larger budget is about making the snow and increasing ticket prices, he said.

“To do it smaller, you have to just think smaller,” he said. “It’s a change in philosophy.”

The goal in going big is based in increasing revenue, not cutting costs.

“The $920,000 budget is going to require much more active management out of everyone involved,” said Bland.

 “If we don’t sell the tickets we will have a bigger loss,” said Bland. “If we sell all of those tickets, we break even. What’s the upside to a bigger operation?”

Ratner asked, rhetorically, “do we want to sell a million tickets?”

Lookner said: “We were told that it was going to be a world-class ski area. The reality it is not generating income to make it a world class ski area. It is a community ski area.”

Bland said that the 2013 redevelopment plan did not call for a world-class ski area; “it called for an 11,000 tickets” sold in a season.

“We voted for redevelopment, and the redevelopment had different goals in mind than what is going on,” he said, adding that the $920,000 budget is based on 12,200 tickets sold at an average price of $25 per ticket.

“Is that realistic,” asked Lookner.

 “I don’t think so,” said Bland. “Last year, we sold 8,500; the year before, 11,800.”

Ratner asked, “what would it take to put together an $800,000 budget, with step-ups?”

At that point, Camden Select Board member Don White interjected and said that Bland had been in the minority on the Budget Team voting against the $920,000 budget. White said he wanted to hear from the majority.

“The budget already has a lot of flaws in it, but right now we are in a position to move forward with what we have,” said White. “I don’t see $800,000 at all,” and said he would vote against such a budget.

Budget Team member Dennis McGuirk then stood at the podium and said: “If you want a budget for disastrous year you don’t have it. If you want a budget for a reasonable year, you have it before you.”

He said, “We have sold 11,000 tickets during many years,” and added that the last time the budget went below $800,000 was prior to the mountain’s redevelopment. “Any further reductions in budget are going to have significant impacts on operations. This season represents the first season to get under our belts, an average season. I think it is important to get a full season of operational costs and revenue.”

McGuirk then said changing the ineffective snow guns would help ensure a better snow base.


Snow guns and Drift additive

It turns out, said Fake, that 13 of the 50 snow guns are not the right kind, and end up blowing out too fine a powder. The Snow Bowl intends to trade them in for ones more suitable for Snow Bowl conditions.

“The first time it rains it is all gone,” said McGuirk.

He said the guns, new ones at an estimated $60,000, would be traded in for an pretty close to a “zero cost.”

McGuirk also said the additive Drift would once again be used at the Snow Bowl for snowmaking.

“We can double the amount of snow,” he said. “We will make more snow and better snow.”

He said the substance Drift is a surfacant that modifies how water spreads when it is shot from a snow gun. Drift loosens the density of water, and the drops are flattened, thereby freezing faster.

“When you take a drop of water on any surface it beads up,” said McGuirk, “These additives change the surface tension of the water, it spreads out to maximize surface area and it freezes better.”

 It’s a chemical, said McGuirk. “We are going to add chemical to water.”

“Should we be concerned about Hosmer Pond,” asked Lookner.

“It doesn’t affect animals and people,” said McGuirk.

Fake clarified on Aug. 3, after the meeting, that Drift has been used at the Snow Bowl for many years. It was dropped from the snowmaking practice over the last two years because of weather and plumbing changes at the pump house, which draws water from Hosmer Pond to the snow guns on the mountain.

Fake said that Drift is generally added at the beginning of the season when the temperatures are marginal and it is helpful. Drift costs $500 a barrel, and each barrel lasts about 10 hours, he said.

“It is expensive so we need to use it judiciously,” he said.


Ticket prices

While the prices have yet to set, Fake is anticipating an increase for most categories of season passes, especially if they are not purchased by the Early Bird deadline of Oct. 31, as well as tickets and classes.

The discussion of new ticket prices was discussed with the Snow Bowl Four Season Committee last week, and Fake said Aug. 3 that family passes will go up in price, as well as seniors.

He also said that he has been cutting back on the number of complimentary tickets and season passes offered to mountain employees and volunteers.

There may be a fee for families of patrollers, stewards and others, this year, he said.

“We are going to do something,” he said. “We have heard the message.”

Select Board says

“Somewhere between T.C. and Dennis is a number,” said Camden Select Board member Jim Heard. “I am not a fan of voting for a budget with a deficit. On the other hand, I think there’s a chance that given a good Mother Nature, maybe we should give the hard work of this community to see if this is going to work. But is going to require diligence on the part of management to make this work. All of us, with Pat (Town Manager Patricia Finnigan) and Landon, and more meetings and more tweaking.”

“We have to have new revenue sources,” said White. “Riding on the benchmarks, trimming the freebies and creating new revenue sources are the difficult parts.”

Town Manager Finnigan said the work will include establishing: “benchmarks that will be on target. We have trained our newest member of the staff (financial director Virginia Lindsay), ‘who is doing her snow dance already.’”

“We don’t have to spend it [the $920,000], if we don’t have to,” said Select Board Chairman John French, as the conversation about the Snow Bowl finances concluded.


Related stories:

Shaping the Camden Snow Bowl budget: Spend more to make more, or rein it in? (August 4 2016)

Camden voters approve dipping into surplus to cover Snow Bowl's $297,303 deficit

•Camden Select Board forms new Ragged Mountain committee to advise the Snow Bowl (June 7, 2016)

• Camden Select Board chastises itself for Snow Bowl deficit, forms new committees to help

• Camden leaders make plan to reduce Snow Bowl's two-year deficit

• What to do about the Camden Snow Bowl’s $260,000 deficit

• Sales, revenue up for season ski passes up at Camden Snow Bowl

• Camden readies Snow Bowl for new season; ticket, season pass price increases included (July 20, 2015)

• Camden approves Ledgewood contract for phase 2 of mountain work (May 20, 2015)

• With record snowfall, Camden's Ragged Mountain Recreation Area begins making financial headway

• Camden Snow Bowl Redevelopment Committee, Ragged Mountain Foundation hold community meeting (March 2, 2015)

• Camden Snow Bowl project up to $8.4 million, fundraising resumes (Feb. 3, 2015)

• Making tracks in some dreamy snow at Camden Snow Bowl (Jan. 30)

• Snow Bowl to fire up chairlifts; refunds offered to passholders (Jan 21)

• Camden Planning Board to begin Snow Bowl lodge review (Jan. 9)

• Camden Select Board brings in old friend to help with Snow Bowl progress (Jan. 7)

• Camden Snow Bowl to start making snow Jan. 5 (Jan. 2)

• Camden Select Board pushes Ragged Mountain redevelopment project forward over protests of many neighbors (Dec. 18)

• Snow Bowl progress report to Camden Select Board continues to be positive (Dec. 3)

• One by one, 20 chairlift towers went up at the Camden Snow Bowl (Dec. 1)

 Helicopter to help raise, place 23 chairlift towers at Camden Snow Bowl (Dec. 1)

• Report: Ragged Mountain Redevelopment Project $500,000 over budget (Oct. 8)

 Camden Planning Board approves Snow Bowl lighting plan as proposed (Oct. 6)

 Camden Snow Bowl on target for Dec. 20 opening, weather willing (Sept. 19)

• Camden to contract with South Portland firm to manage Snow Bowl lodge, base area (July 24, 2014)

 Camden Snow Bowl project remains under DEP scrutiny, making progress, more work ahead (July 11)

 Vermont trail builder takes helm with Camden Snow Bowl project, new phase gets under way (July 10)

 Camden Snow Bowl prepped for more rain, assembling working group to assist with next steps (July 2)

• Snow Bowl mountain mud runoff causes headache for neighbors, town (July 1)

 Camden Snow Bowl anticipates ending season in the black; work begins on Ragged Mountain (March 19)

 Homage to Camden’s Big T (March 15, 2014)

 By wide margin, Camden voters approve Snow Bowl improvement bond (Nov. 5, 2013)

 Camden voters consider $2 million Snow Bowl bond, three zoning amendments (Nov. 3, 2013)

 Camden committee selects new parks and recreation director (Sept. 6, 2013)

 Camden considers $2 million Snow Bowl bond, ordinance amendments Nov. 5 (Sept. 4, 2014)

 Camden ready to put $2 million bond before voters (Aug. 21, 2013)

 Camden pursues federal money to help with Snow Bowl upgrade (July 10, 2013)

 Camden learns about refurbished chairlifts, woven grips and haul ropes (April 10, 2013)

 Last run for Jeff (Jan. 21, 2013)

 Stellar start to season at Camden Snow Bowl (Jan. 9, 2013)

 Camden’s Ragged Mountain loses a good friend (Nov. 7, 2012)

 Ready for packed powder? Camden Snow Bowl to make it quicker, sooner with updated snow guns (Sept. 12, 2012)

Reach Editorial Director Lynda Clancy at lyndaclancy@penbaypilot.com; 207-706-6657