While many Moosehead Lake region residents see a $113.5 million year-round ski resort as a significant boost for the local economy, some want a larger conversation about the project’s scale and preserving the area’s small-town charm.
Developer Big Lake Development LLC and partners have been working for more than three years to purchase the ski resort on Big Moose Mountain from James Confalone of Florida and to obtain permits to reopen and expand the defunct business.
Neighbors’ concerns and questions around burdening small-town infrastructure and changing the character of the region underscore a long-running distrust of big development projects like Plum Creek, an even larger scale residential development proposed in 2005. But many people support the economic advantages of the proposed ski resort — including the 380 or so full- and part-time jobs the project could bring to Piscataquis County, the poorest in the state.
An influx of visitors and newcomers could help local businesses hurting during the winter months and draw others to start businesses of their own, creating a “ripple effect,” Greenville Town Manager Michael Roy said.
He thinks tourists and new residents will increase foot traffic to downtown restaurants and shops. New families would also bolster declining enrollment at Greenville Consolidated School, which serves kindergarten through 12th grade, he said.
The project’s first phase calls for a new chairlift, base ski lodge, 60-room hotel, brew house and other features. Big Lake Development filed an application for permitting in March 2021, which the Maine Land Use Planning Commission is still reviewing. The commision voted last week to hold a public hearing, which has yet to be scheduled.
The second phase would include a 150-200 slip marina and nearly 500 residential units, though the developer has not filed an application with the Department of Environmental Protection.
Some say there’s room for a larger conversation between developers and residents about the scale of the project and preserving the area’s small-town charm.
For instance, Greenville doesn’t have a stop light, but rather a blinking light, along Pritham Avenue near the town office. To some residents, the blinking light signifies a “small-town feeling” that they’re afraid to lose, Roy said.
Helen Schacht, who owns the Mud Puddle Mercantile, operated her shop year-round for about 15 years, but made it seasonal when business consistently fell off this time of year. The ski resort could be positive for businesses like hers, which is only open May through October because of the slump during cold months.
“I was very pro-Plum Creek, and I’m pro-ski area,” she said. “Greenville will never be too crowded because we’re too far away. We will never be Bar Harbor, ever.”
The Plum Creek project finally failed in September 2019 when a new owner filed a petition to undo all of its permitting, citing the 2008-09 recession as a primary reason.
Although some have expressed concerns about increased traffic and noise, Schacht thinks it’s possible for the Moosehead Lake region to hold onto the qualities that make it unique.
“They’re [visitors] going to disappear into the woods like everyone else,” she said. “They’ll do their grocery shopping once a week, and they’ll enjoy the beauty of the area.”
Robin Lown Gardella spends four days a week in Greenville because the economy tanks in the winter, she said. Gardella displays and sells her work at Galleria Gardella, which shares a space with another local business, and works as a therapist three days a week in Augusta.
She welcomes the ski resort redevelopment and hopes it attracts more customers to her business, but says some in the community worry that expansion will go too far.
“Until we can visualize it, we don’t know what it will look and feel like,” she said. “That puts fear in people.”
The developer and those involved with the project have said from the beginning that the redevelopment will grow the local economy while protecting the integrity of the environment on the mountain.
Maine’s outdoor recreation industry made up 3.3 percent of the state’s economy and ranked fifth in the country, according to 2020 data released in November 2021 by the U.S. Department of Commerce’s Bureau of Economic Analysis.
The redevelopment of the ski resort on Big Moose Mountain would be a welcome economic stimulator for the Moosehead Lake region that would attract more jobs and opportunities for residents, said Allison Arbo, joint executive director of tourist information center Destination Moosehead Lake and the Moosehead Lake Region Economic Development Corporation.
Margarita Contreni, acting president of the economic development group, was not immediately available Friday.
Although the idea of hundreds of new jobs, including construction workers, snowmakers and hotel staff, sounds promising, questions remain about the resort and its effect on a community that’s used to operating as a small town, Roy said.
“Services will be strained,” he said, pointing to the transfer station and police and fire departments, which are already dealing with a surge in calls. “We will have to address this and have discussions with the county once the mountain changes hands and reconstruction starts.”
There’s also a lack of workforce housing in Greenville and surrounding areas that the economic development corporation is working to address, he said. It took the COVID-19 pandemic for people to rediscover Greenville and its magic, and many purchased land and properties in the area. The town office has seen a spike in real estate transfers and building permits. Some are buying old properties and fixing them up.
When a flurry of real estate activity erupted in the region, people were suddenly more worried about housing and the community’s capacity to deal with parking, sewage and other necessities, said Karin Tilberg, Forest Society of Maine president and CEO.
The organization, which serves as the land trust for Maine’s North Woods, holds conservation easements around Moosehead Lake.
“I think some people are unnerved by the degree of local change,” said Tilberg, who wrote a letter of support to the developer on behalf of the Forest Society of Maine in November 2020. “I think that’s why some people are saying, ‘Let’s put our foot on the brake pedal here’.”
Tilberg also serves as a board member of the Moosehead Lake Region Economic Development Corp., which sponsored a report involving the community in 2015, when Greenville and the surrounding areas were in financial slump.
“There was this community visioning that took place for a number of years,” she said. “It did seem as though there was a strong overall desire to have the ski area revitalized. Now it‘s a matter of the community and the developer to have some conversation about the degree and design.”
Redeveloping the ski resort while also maintaining its integrity will be crucial for the region to prosper in the future, Roy said. He pointed to Moosehead Lake and proposed residential units and other structures as an example. When people are taking in the beauty from the top of Big Moose Mountain, he’s not sure they’ll want rooftops obstructing the view of Moosehead Lake.
“We need to start early and be proactive about balancing, and not reactive,” he said. “I do think protecting certain areas of the lake from development is huge.”
Roy, who has served as town manager since 2019, hears stories around town about how the ski resort thrived in previous decades. The resort and area inns were successful throughout the 1960s and 1970s, Schacht recalled.
“I think it can be that way again,” Roy said. “It’s just going to be a little change for the people who live here.”