Focus first on mountain improvements; new lodge to follow

Snow Bowl ready to put $2 million mountain bond before Camden voters

Wed, 08/21/2013 - 5:00pm

Story Location:
20 Barnestown Road
Camden  Maine  04843
United States

    CAMDEN — Five years after approving a nonbinding measure to support borrowing $2 million for Ragged Mountain improvements, voters may be asked in November if they are ready to issue such a bond and help finance a Snow Bowl overhaul. On Sept. 3, citizens will have a chance to discuss it at a public hearing, where the Select Board will decide whether to include the question on the autumn warrant.

    If approved, the $2 million would combine with $4.5 million in private donations and be spent at the year-round, town-owned Snow Bowl, with work beginning in 2014. The project has been in planning and fundraising phases since 2008, and proponents are now ready to advance it.

    “It’s time to ask you to move another question forward,” said Camden resident Rick Knowlton, who is co-chairman of the Ragged Mountain Redevelopment Recreation Area Committee. Committee members also include Sam Appleton, Scott Dickerson, Bob Gordon (co-chairman), Snow Bowl Acting General Manager Beth Ward, Robert Levine, Fran Moore, Frank Morong, Molly Mulhern, John Scholz and Mort Strom.

    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 access to Hosmer 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.

    According to project proponents, the Snow Bowl “has been part of the fabric of Camden and the Midcoast for 75 years. Thousands of people have learned to ski there, walked with friends on the trails, competed on the slopes, fields and tennis courts, and celebrated events with their families in the lodge. It’s a true community treasure, and is often cited as an important reason families chose to move to, and stay in, the area. The Redevelopment and Sustainability Plan addresses how we intend to keep this tremendous resource a vital part of the community for the next 30 to 40 years.”

    Knowlton made the request Tuesday evening, Aug. 21, at a regularly scheduled Camden Select Board meeting. The meeting included several discussions on proposed November warrant articles, and Knowlton’s request followed the board’s scheduling of September public hearings for two proposed land use ordinance amendments that might also appear on the November ballot.

    In 2008, Camden voters approved a non-binding measure that positioned support for borrowing up to $2 million for Ragged Mountain Recreation Area improvements, if matched by a minimum of $4.5 million raised via private money. Following that vote, project proponents commenced soliciting contributions, as well as holding public fundraisers. The committee is now reaching the $4 million mark.

    According to Knowlton, the matching funds — $2 million of town funds and $4.5 million in donations — would be expended together, not one before the other.

    “There is a relationship between public and private fundraising,” said Knowlton. “The momentum is there. The strategy is there to have $4.5 million in pledges, perhaps as soon as the bond vote. The pledge allows people to give over a three-year period and many of them are doing that.”

    He said expenditures are planned to match the cash flow of donations.

    “Expenditures of public indebtedness would work in concert, all over a two-year period,” said Knowlton.

    That cash flow is also contingent on timing the financing with the Maine Municipal Bond Bank, which issues bonds twice a year, in the spring and the fall. In order to get on next spring’s bond list, the town must vote, and approve the measure, this November, said Knowlton.

    “This will allow funds to be available to the project next June,” he said.

    The cost of borrowing $2 million to the taxpayers could average $110,000 in annual interest payments for 30 years, he said.

    “Annualized, that’s a 2.7 cent increase on the current mil rate of $13.47, or $8.10 per year increase in property tax on a property valued at $300,000,” according to an updated Redevelopment and Sustainability Plan for the Ragged Mountain Recreation Area submitted to the Select Board Aug. 21.

    The capital improvement project at Ragged Mountain entails making mountainside improvements in 2014 and constructing a new lodge in 2015. The intent is to “provide the capacity to accommodate up to 600 skiers per day with adequate parking, lodge space, uphill lift capacity, and ski terrain serviced by snowmaking and enhance year-round trail use for hikers and mountain biking,” according to the updated plan.

    In June, Camden taxpayers approved expending $15,000 on the municipally-run Snow Bowl to help keep it in operation. The Ragged Mountain budget this year is $700,828.

    The mountain has been supported by the town in varying degrees since the town assumed ownership of its real estate and operations in 1983. In 1990-91, Camden voters approved funding the Snow Bowl with $149,000 of their tax dollars; in 2009-2010, it was $55,000. Last year, and following several years of good snowfall, the town contributed zero dollars.

    The Redevelopment Committee has built a detailed finance and budget analysis of the Ragged Mountain Recreation Area through 2016, incorporating the entire mountain upgrade. Aside from debt obligation, the projected budget includes no town matching funds in 2015 and 2016. Instead, the budget anticipates additional revenue will derive from the increased numbers of daily and season ski tickets, ski school enrollment and new lodge rentals.

     

    What’s going to change at the mountain?

    Improvements include repurposing the existing double-chair lift, removing both T-bars and installing a used triple-chair lift to the top of the mountain, near the same path of the existing Big-T. Design and engineering for this aspect of the overhaul is a large component of the entire project.

    The plan also entails keeping the existing lodge for race training and events, and building a new 8,500-square-foot lodge with seating for 200 and food service.

    Snowmaking is to be be expanded from 40 percent to over 80 percent coverage, including the improved novice area and the top of the mountain.

    “All together, these improvements will provide a comfortable carrying capacity of 600 visitors and a peak capacity of 1,000 visitors with adequate parking, lodge space and ski/snowboard terrain, generating an average of 35,000 skier visits annually,” the updated plan said.

    “The redevelopment project is envisioned to renovate or replace aging facilities and to expand the services and programs offered at the Ragged Mountain Recreation area during both skiing and non-skiing months,” the update said. “The redevelopment project will not, and should not, fundamentally change the family appeal of the recreation area and its affordable access to outdoor recreation activities. The committees and individuals involved in the project thus far feel strongly that now is the time to redevelop the facilities at Ragged Mountain in order for the community to enjoy the next 30 to 40 years of local, affordable and healthy outdoor recreation.”

    Components of the project carry estimated price tags:

    1) Purchase of the triple-seat chairlift, reconfiguration of existing lift, removal of T-bars: $1 million.

    2) Improving snowmaking and equipment, trailwork, power upgrade and distribution: $2.5 million.

    3) New lodge: $2 million.

    4) Architecture, design, engineering, consultants: $1 million.

    While the Select Board praised Knowlton and the Redevelopment Committee for its steady and consistent hard work, members wanted to know where budget risks might surface.

    “The cost of the hill lift improvements is where the risk is,” said Knowlton. “We will know that in Year One.”

    He said it would cost $50,000 per day to have a helicopter help set new towers for the chairlift, but carefully planning and executing that part of the plan would mitigate costs such as that.

    The pump for increasing snowmaking is already in place at Hosmer Pond, he said. What comes next is laying distribution pipes up the hill, and siting compressors and snow guns.

    “The pump is there, and pipes have to go in,” he said. “Compressors we can lease. Companies bring them in November and pick them up in the spring. Operationally, it’s more expensive but we avoid the capital investment.”

    “You all have seen Fitzy [Snow Bowl Facilities Manager William Fitzcharles] and his crew dragging the hoses around the mountain,” said Knowlton. “At most large mountains those are fixed and part of the permanent installation.”

    Select Board member Leonard Lookner said the original focus of the redevelopment committee was to relieve the town’s financial burden in running the Snow Bowl.

    “Ragged Mountain Redevelopment Foundation is not going away,” said Knowlton. “Their commitment to the Snow Bowl won’t stop because the capital project is done. They will add to the $6.5 million.”

    He said it is important to finish this project, and that will increase the viability of the Snow Bowl.

    Lookner also asked who would be circulating project bids and approving them.

    “It is the town of Camden’s project,” said Knowlton. “The town hires the architect to design the lodge. There will be a standard municipal procurement process. Bids will go out and come to the Select Board to approve those bids. And, there will be public hearings.”

    He said the Rockport-based Gartley and Dorksy engineering company will be coordinating the construction process.

     

    Financing the project

    The Redevelopment Committee has the following financial goals:

    1)  to raise $6.5 million to build/replace/expand major assets at Ragged Mountain, using essentially the same of amount of public funds invested over the past 30 years (approximately $2 million) and $4.5 million of private funding to shift the focus from annual maintenance to a major redevelopment and capital improvement program;

    2) to replace historic volatility in taxpayer support each June with stable and predictable long-term debt payments, estimated at an average of $110,000 per year over a 30-year term;

    3) to continue to operate the Snow Bowl as an Enterprise Fund within the town. This means that annual revenues from ticket sales and other fees shall be sufficient over time to pay for the operating and maintenance expenses of the facility and its programs; and

    4) to continue to encourage financial support for the RMRA from the RMRA Foundation.

    In early July, Brian Hodges, Camden's development director, got select board approval to submit a $200,000 grant to the Northern Border Regional Commission. If approved, the $200,000 would be used to offset the $4.5 million private fundraising effort. The town will not hear whether the grant application is approved until the beginning of October, past the deadline for getting warrant language ready for voters; hence, the inclusion of the possible $200,000 in the private fundraising effort.

    The Sept. 3 public hearing provides citizens the chance to weigh in on the proposed bond. The Select Board will then vote to place it on the Nov. 5 warrant, or not.

     

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    Editorial Director Lynda Clancy can be reached at lyndaclancy@penbaypilot.com; 706-6657.