It was all business about Snow Bowl business at the Camden Select Board meeting, Sept. 18, as town leaders approved a $655,012 budget for the four-season recreation facility, increased rental fees for the lodge, and agreed to upgrade snowmaking equipment.
While football games are under way on the field and hikers are enjoying early fall on the trails, employees at the Camden Snow Bowl are gearing up for Winter 2012-2013, and hoping the weather cooperates. Last year, a warming trend knocked the mountain from a four-plus year stretch of good revenue to a deficit plunge. In the final bookkeeping, the Snow Bowl went into the red last year by $78,725, thanks to a dearth of snow and a warm winter. Thanks to the good years, however, it had reserves to bridge the deficit.
"Last year was challenging," said Jeff Kuller, Camden's Director of Parks and Recreation. "Mother Nature was not generous. We did quite well considering we had the worst snow year in 20 years. The good news is that we had $100,000 as a fund balance. We absorbed the operating loss."
Last year's budget was $645,060. The fiscal year 2013 budget is $655,012 with anticipated revenues of $661,100; yet, Kuller is hoping again to build a fund balance to counter that deficit. The 2013 budget is less than the 2011 budget, a good snow year that recorded $725,389 in revenues and $690,069 in expenses.
Ski season figures for this coming winter are already being recorded, with the August early bird season pass purchases. According to Kuller, those sales were down 8.5 percent from last year at this time, and he attributes that on last year's warm winter.
The Camden Snow Bowl is owned by the town of Camden, and is the largest function of the Ragged Mountain Recreation Area, by Hosmer Pond. While the Snow Bowl comprises the downhill and Nordic ski trails, and lodge, Ragged Mountain is also home to a playing field used for various sports, hiking and mountain biking trails, tennis courts, and water access to the pond. It is home to the annual toboggan championships, and the chairlift is used in the autumn to transport tourists and bikers to the top of the mountain, for views over Penobscot Bay.
"It is possible to make that up," he said, optimistically citing early signs of a snowy winter. "There are lots of lots of acorns on the ground."
As Kuller initiated discussion of Snow Bowl business, he acknowledged the legions of volunteers who help keep Ragged Mountain a strong community center.
“I don't do it in a vaccuum,” he said. There are dozens of people, thousands of hours donated, and unsung heros, said Kuller. “I sit in on all these meetings and I see what happens.”
While the Select Board approved increaseing lodge rental fees at the Sept. 18 meeting, Kuller said there would be no increases in the cost of Snow Bowl ticket or other associated prices.
“We are holding price on virtually everything,” he said.
Lodge rental increases
The Snow Bowl lodge and deck, with its summer awning, has long been a popular facility to rent for weddings, reunions and dance parties. In reviewing the costs, Kuller has asked the board to approve a new rate structure that intends Camden to at least meet facility operating costs, which include staff time and maintenance overhead.
After eight years of static pricing, the Camden Snow Bowl will now charge $500 on the weekend for a 24-hour rental, up from the current $400. Nonprofits will be charged $300, up from $200, for the same period. A Friday set-up charge --a new charge altogether -- for a Saturday event will cost $250. The basic weekday rental will be $300, which drops from $400, while nonprofits will see no increase, remaining at $200 for a weekday rental. A meeting rental during the week (three hours) will cost $100; currently there is no charge for meeting space.
“I think people can understand the need to cover the bill,” said Select Board Chairman Martin Cates.
Kuller provided comparison prices for other area rental facilities, ranging from the Masonic Hall in Rockport and the American Legion Hall, both of which charge $350 for events, to the Rockport Opera House, which charges $1,500, and to Point Lookout, in Northport, the Samoset Resort and Camden Yacht Club, all of which charge approximately $3,000 for similar rentals.
At the urging of Select Board member John French, the board also directed Kuller to conduct a more complete analysis over the course of this coming year of what it costs to rent the facility.
“I don't have a problem renting it, I just don't want to give it way,” said French.
New snow guns, groomer
At the same meeting, the board also approved Kuller's purchase of 10 new snow guns and 15 hydrants to add to the existing snowmaking pipe. The retail cost of the purchase is $54,250, and he has applied to Efficiency Maine for a rebate between 25 and 75 percent for the cost of the equipment. Efficiency Maine was established in 2002, funded in large part by electricity rate charges and government money to develop energy-saving programs and improvements.
Citing estimates he received from the snow gun retailer, Kuller said the equipment purchase could save more than $10,000 in electricity costs per year. He said the Ragged Mountain Redevelopment Committee and Ragged Mountain Recreation Area Foundation support the purchase, as well as using redevelopment funds to reimburse the town, even if no rebate is available.
Kuller said the improved snowmaking could put a snow pack on the ground sooner and more reliably than what can currently be achieved. The goal is to capture Christmas vacation business, which is meterologically inconsistent.
Kuller is banking on more income, earlier in the season. If the mountain does not open that week of school vacation, "that is lost income," he said. "We can never make up Christmas vacation."
The Snow Bowl will also be buying a 2008 Pisten Bully 600 snow groomer from a Lewiston dealer. The engine has 4,704 hours on it, and costs $125,000.
"A $25,000 trade-in will be applied from turning in our PB 300," wrote Kuller, in a memo to the board. That machine is 14 years old. The Capital Improvement Plan has included a $35,000 annual payment for this purchase.
At the same Select Board meeting, Ragged Mountain Redevelopment Committee members Rick Knowlton and Bob Gordon reported fundraising to date for the $6.5 million mountain overhaul project ($4.5 million of which is to be raised privately) has reached $2.7 million, with $170,000 of that raised this summer at an auction. The committee also announced a $400,000 challenge grant, and when it matches that grant it will move fundraising to the $3.5 million mark.
Knowlton characterized the current stretch "like doing a long race. We can see the finish line, and the big push is on.”
The goal is to raise $4.5 million through private donations, and another $2 million through a Camden voter-approved bond to cover the final 30 percent of a project that includes building a new lodge, installing a new chairlift, improving infrastructure at the mountain, and expanding ski areas and snowmaking.
Knowlton described additional fundraising opportunities, such as naming rooms at the new lodge, and chairs on the chairlift. There are 100 chairs and 30 have sold so far, he said.
Snow Bowl concession
In the last bit of Snow Bowl business on Sept. 18, the board voted to award concession services there to French and Brawn, of Camden.
Camden circulated request for proposals from potential vendors and received but one response, which was from French and Brawn. In exchange for making meals and selling food at the lodge, the business returns 6.5 percent of its gross sales to the Snow Bowl.
"They have been great work with," said Kuller.
They have been very loyal,” said Select Board member John French. “They stuck it out through thick and thin, and have done a great job.”