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A lofty goal

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Carrabassett Valley works to secure a loan for a new gondola that Sugarloafers say will make their mountain the top ski area in the east.
By DEIRDRE FLEMING, Staff Writer
December 13, 2009
An old car from Sugarloaf’s first gondola lift sits outside The Rack in Carrabassett Valley. The ski area is hoping a new gondola lift will draw more people to its slopes.
When the old gondola lift was dismantled, cars were auctioned off to raise money for the mountain. This one hangs in front of Judson’s Restaurant in Carrabassett Valley.
Another car from the old, storied Sugarloaf gondola lift sits outside a mountainside condo. The old gondola lift debuted in February 1966. Tickets were $7.50.
Restaurant owner Lloyd Cuttler, a town selectman, has one of the cars from the old Sugarloaf gondola lift in his yard.

John Patriquin/Staff Photographer
Carrabassett Valley Town Manager Dave Cota said Thursday the town efforts to secure a loan for a new ski gondola lift look promising.

John Patriquin/Staff Photographer
The old Sugarloaf gondola lift and its summit building, photographed by Kingfield photographer Greg Thomas in 1987 as he rode to the top. “That turned out to be an epic moment, now it’s gone,” Thomas said. “It was the only time a lift could get you from the base to the top in one ride. That was the most special thing about it.”

FOR UPDATES on the status of the gondola project between Carrabassett Valley and Sugarloaf, go to www.sugarloaf.com and www.carrabassettvalley.org.

WESCOTT'S SPEECH

"AMOS WINTER and Stub Taylor didn't question whether or not they were

headed in the right direction," Olympian Seth Wescott said in his
speech to the town of Carrabassett Valley, where he is a resident.
"They picked up saws and started uphill, because they knew what they
had and they saw its potential."

 

CARRABASSETT VALLEY — The lines were an hour long, the promise of transport unreliable, and the chance of finding beer bottles inside the old gondola cars at Sugarloaf pretty good.

But despite its bad-boy image – or perhaps because of it – the gondola lift at Sugarloaf that came down in 1997 was loved, even by the very locals who cursed its temperamental spirit.

"I don't think they ever published the percentage of times that it actually ran during hours of operation. It had to be less than 50 percent," said local Don Fowler. "But it wasn't a question of how many people it moved; it was a question of how many people came because of the gondola."

The gondola lift that went up in 1965 changed Sugarloaf from a place way up in Maine that had five T-bars to a place with an exotic enclosed lift. That is exactly why the residents of Carrabassett Valley right now are rallying to bring the gondola glory back to Sugarloaf.

And it all started with a snowboarder saying they needed one.

On Oct. 19, Olympic gold medalist Seth Wescott gave an 11-minute speech at a selectmen's meeting that the people in this western Maine town are still talking about.

Wescott, a resident of Carrabassett Valley, asked this town of 440 to help finance a gondola lift to return Sugarloaf to its rightful place as the "mecca of New England skiing," because the resort won't be able to do it alone.

He spoke of their "shared destiny" that revolved around the 4,237-foot mountain and about the signature lifts he's experienced around the world.

Wescott, who is currently trying to secure a berth on the U.S. Olympic team in snowboardcross, reminded them of the World Cup races that first came to Sugarloaf in the 1970s, and about the men who cut the first trails there in 1950.

"Amos Winter and Stub Taylor didn't question whether or not they were headed in the right direction," Wescott said. "They picked up saws and started uphill, because they knew what they had and they saw its potential."

The people of Carrabassett Valley have embodied that pioneer spirit many times over.

In 1982, the town cobbled together funds to build the award-winning golf course that it leases to Sugarloaf. In 1976, it built the elegant Nordic ski center, which it also rents to Sugarloaf. And nine years ago, the town joined with Carrabassett Valley Academy in building the Anti-Gravity Complex where Wescott and other Olympic hopefuls train.

Now many of the residents here want to do it again with an $8 million gondola lift.

"Instead of saying, 'They should do it,' it's a lot easier for us to say, 'We'll do it,' " said Nadene McLeod, co-owner of the local television station and a resident for 27 years.

It is this fierce tenacity that makes a gondola lift at Sugarloaf even possible, said John Diller, Sugarloaf general manager.

HIGH HOPES

Currently, the top three ski mountains in the East have gondolas or trams. Sugarloaf having one, locals believe, would make the mountain No. 1 again.

"I've skied everywhere. I chose Sugarloaf because it was hands down better than the any other mountain," McLeod said. "It still is. But we'd like to see it get back to the glory days."

But the numbers involved in financing a gondola lift need to work.

The money to finance the $8 million loan would be absorbed by season pass holders and day ticket sales. But Sugarloaf needs a low-interest loan to be able to pay it back, Diller said.

That's where the town comes in, and Town Manager Dave Cota said Thursday it looks promising for Carrabassett Valley to secure a loan.

"The best guess at this time is that this will happen," he said.

No matter what, town Selectman John Beaupre said those working on the deal are not giving up.

A new gondola would travel 8,200 feet in less than seven minutes, and it would work in 60-mile-an-hour winds.

The old gondola moved 400 people an hour; a new one would move 1,200.

And it would be the first time in more than a decade skiers and riders could access the summit with one lift.

"It was the only time a lift could get you from the base to the top in one ride. That was the most special thing about it," said Greg Thomas, a Kingfield photographer.

Undoubtedly, the love Sugarloafers had for their finicky and failing gondola lift of old would be the same.

THE ORIGINAL GONDOLA

John Christie, who helped manage the mountain in the 1960s and helped construct the old gondola lift, called it a "do-it-yourself project."

Christie, 73, said it was built with classic New England ingenuity, which meant the work force was made up of half a dozen locals who had never done that kind of work before.

An engineer from the German company that designed the thing came to help – and an engineer from Bath Iron Works came up on weekends to help translate for the German.

When it opened in February 1966, tickets were $7.50, and its future uncertain.

"When the first car went out I was in it. And people said, 'This must be exciting for you.' And I said, 'I just hope the ... thing works,' " Christie said.

But it allowed Sugarloaf to hold World Cup events. And those who ran Sugarloaf added "USA" to the resort's name to illustrate the new energy on the mountain.

"We wanted to give the impression we were a world-class resort," said Christie, who lives near Camden.

It remained Sugarloaf/USA for 40 years until the owners of Boyne Resort bought the mountain in 2007 and took it off.

Between its initial draw and eventual demise, the gondola's legend grew bigger than the mountain. It was at times an airborne pub full of drinking and debauchery.

Pam Sheridan, a waitress at The Bag in Sugarloaf village, said the cars would fog up so much you couldn't see the skis on the outside or the mischief on the inside.

"It was mad up there in the mid-'70s," Sheridan said. "It was a lot of fun. The first time we went up, there were eight of us. Only one could ski down from the top. I could tell you other stories, but they're totally illegal."

The Bag's barman, "Uncle" Al Scheeren, said legend has it the doors would swing open and smoke would pour out. Ball caps were made with the image, he said.

"The old gondola had quite a history," mused Cota.

Before it was taken down in 1997, the bottom was cannibalized to provide parts for the upper half. But long after the gondola lift was dismantled, its legend lives on in Carrabassett Valley.

Cars were auctioned off to raise money for the mountain and they scattered, landing in lawns and fields. In Carrabassett Valley one can be seen hanging in front of Judson's Restaurant; another sits outside Wescott's restaurant, The Rack. Lloyd Cuttler, who owns Geppetto's Restaurant, has one in his yard.

"It exists still," said Scheeren, the Sugarloaf barman.

And just as the old gondola lift captured Sugarloaf's spirit, Christie believes a new one would return the mountain to its "rightful place in the East."

"I think for all the reasons they built it in the first place, they're right again now," Christie said.

FOUR-SEASON FACELIFT

Certainly, some are worried. Cuttler, a town selectman, said the townspeople have to feel confident if they provide a loan for a gondola lift that it will be paid back by Sugarloaf. And for some that's a big question.

"It would give people more of a reason to come here. It seems like everybody wants it. Definitely, people would want to make sure (the deal) is going to work," said Travis Chandler, 36, during a stop in the mountain grocery store.

However, there is clearly a groundswell of support.

"The thing that Seth did was bring the whole issue back on everyone's plate," Diller said. "I think that in itself, even if at the end of the day the bond side doesn't work, it gave us the initiative. We've got the momentum. There is a lot of interest from a lot of people."

Christie said Sugarloaf needs a signature lift or it will never reach its potential as a four-season alpine destination.

"I think the question is, does it keep going on as what it is, or does it take a step into the big time?" he said. "It's a quantum leap what can be done if a signature lift is installed."

No matter what, Beaupre said the idea of a gondola lift has given this small town, which sits just miles from the Canadian border, "the best thing since Seth's gold medal."

And just like the original gondola lift, that won't be forgotten.

"Even if it doesn't happen, it reinforces how special Sugarloaf is," Beaupre said, "because all these people came together to work for it."

Staff Writer Deirdre Fleming can be contacted at 791-6452 or at:

dfleming@pressherald.com

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