When a Knox County developer and his partners began work to get a year-round ski resort in Piscataquis County off the ground more than three years ago, nobody could predict pandemic-related delays.
Although the project is alive and progressing, the timeline has shifted during a time of uncertainty, developer Perry Williams of Spruce Head said. A new chairlift was expected to be installed in the coming months, but a more likely timeframe for the resort to fully open is December 2023 or January 2024. Williams hopes a partial opening could come sooner.
The mountain — now Big Moose Mountain — opened in December 1963 for skiing, but closed in 2010 after the ski resort built there fell into disrepair. Friends of the Mountain, a nonprofit that has leased the chairlift and lodge since 2013, will operate the lower mountain this winter, a decision made recently based on the developer’s latest timeline for the new project’s completion. The COVID-19 pandemic has led to fluctuations in material prices and availability, plus future employees’ wages, making it tough to solidify funding and plan for construction.
The most significant challenge has been nailing down a funding structure for the project, which includes “determining the correct budget, what’s the right build out, what is all that going to cost and how do you properly finance it,” Williams said, adding that the resort needs to remain sustainable in the long term.
Developers are working with Barclays Investment Bank. Tax-free municipal bonds are funding the majority of the project, Williams said.
The sale of the property hasn’t been finalized, but Williams’ Big Lake Development LLC and his partners are moving toward a closing. The other two core entities involved are nonprofit Provident Resources Group of Baton Rouge, Louisiana, and Treadwell Franklin Infrastructure Capital of Yarmouth.
Project developers have found that the cost of materials — including concrete, electrical materials, plumbing, PVC pipes, roofing, siding and more — has increased due to the pandemic. Fuel prices have shot up too, and once the materials are acquired, they have to be transported to the proper sites.
Developers are feeling the effects of factories’ slowed production and material shortages, Williams said.
“Now we’re working through the long lead time for items. … You’ve got to get in that pipeline of the supply chain,” he said.
For example, Williams has been told roofing is eight to nine months out. But construction continues across the state and country, and due to the real estate boom, getting materials is competitive, he said.
“The chair lift is almost all steel,” Williams said. “Steel towers, steel cables, steel chairs. The pricing is still fluid so we’re talking to the two or three chairlift manufacturers in the world and seeing what’s the best fit for this site at this time. We haven’t signed a contract yet.”
The fluctuations can be hard to plan for when taking on an ambitious project, but developers are working with a construction company’s estimation team to help with that.
The pandemic has also increased wages for the resort’s future 380 or so full- and part-time employees, including construction workers, snowmakers, chairlift attendants, hotel staff and others positions.
“We’re constantly watching wage changes and adjusting our modeling,” Williams said. “It needed to [go up]. It’s a competitive environment. Everybody is seeing that in the ski business.”
Most Piscataquis County residents appear to be taking a “wait and see approach” with the project, Manager Michael Williams said in late November. When they hear an update on progress, it gives them a boost of encouragement about the Greenville area’s potential.
“I know everybody’s hoping it goes through because of the economic boost it can bring,” he said. “Also the potential for jobs — that’s the key. Not just a job, but a decent-paying job. People have been supportive in that sense.”
The four-season resort would include new chairlifts, a new base lodge and brew pub, a 60-room hotel, a snowmaking system, a marina on Moosehead Lake and other features. Piscataquis County commissioners endorsed the plan, and the Finance Authority of Maine approved up to $135 million in bond financing in April.
“Everything that is unique and special about Maine, the mountains of Maine, the lakes of Maine — that’s what this is about,” Williams said.
From the start, the proposed project had all the components of a successful model, said Lee Umphrey, Eastern Maine Development Corp. president and CEO. The nonprofit was the catalyst for the project, giving developers a $385,00 loan in December 2020.
Despite pandemic hurdles and delays, “on our end, we’re pretty bullish in continuing to invest in the project,” Umphrey said, calling it a game-changer for the Greenville area, county and state in terms of job creation and strengthening the economy.
A board with members at local, national and international levels will oversee the resort eventually, Umphrey said. Locally, it will include a county commissioner, a person from EMDC and a person from the Moosehead Lake Region Economic Development Corp., he said.
Bangor Daily News photographer Linda Coan O’Kresik and writer Judy Harrison contributed to this report.