Happy Trails: Bad news for Big Squaw ski resort (March 16, 2009)

People in the Piscataquis County town of Greenville have long memories.

They’ve seen development plans come and go. Mostly go.

Well, it happened again this week.

Last season, I wrote about the forever-promising Big Squaw ski resort. “Panoramic, Tahoe-like vistas of Moosehead Lake and surrounding mountains, 33 miles of ski slopes, an existing bed base and the logical geography for a four-season resort,” was part of the profile.

We also delved into the problem of absentee ownership — a problem that is ongoing.

Owner Jim Confalone, a Florida businessman, has been rumored many times to be preparing a plan for the Land Use Regulation Commission that would develop some of the 6,500 acres on Big Moose Mountain and along nearby Moosehead shores, including 925 acres surrounding the resort already zoned for development.

Greenville people have heard of 200 new condominiums, upgrades to the existing hotel and base lodge, and lift improvements on the upper mountain. They’ve seen longer-term blueprints that include the obligatory 18-hole golf course, two new hotels, some single-family homes, maybe even a train station.

Well, some news to report. It ain’t good.

Picking up the ball where private initiative has failed, public officials spent some of this snowy winter not skiing, not serving food and drinks, not signing up kids for ski lessons or rental gear.

No, instead they worked diligently to seek grant money to help Confalone develop his resort.

After all, it’s hard to go skiing when the main chairlift on the main winter draw in your rural township has sat idle for years — its frayed haul rope a bitter reminder of the near-tragic 2004 lift accident there.

Sick of the eternal wait, the Piscataquis County Economic Development Council and Piscataquis County Commission got together and figured, let’s forget hotels and train stations. Let’s try something a bit more modest to get this thing moving.

So they drew up a letter of intent to apply for a $200,000 federal Community Development Block Grant to help Confalone make improvements to the double chairlift that services the upper part of the mountain.

If successful in drawing the grant, the money would be used to rebuild the double chairlift, repair 28 lift towers and blast away a rock outcropping that limits snowmaking, according to Thomas Kittredge, director of the Piscataquis County Economic Development Council.

It’s important to remember that, in classic Big Squaw fashion, the spark behind this plan — a plan that would benefit a private resort owner — wasn’t the owner. It was the county and the Economic Development Council — the public officials for whom poverty and lack of opportunity are not an option.

“We wanted to make the best case we can that it (the ski resort) actually has a lot of indirect benefits to the surrounding area,” Kittredge told me this week.

But as the March 6 deadline approached, a problem — a somewhat familiar problem — became evident.

Federal block grants for private business require a one-for-one financial match from the business owner, so Confalone would need to sell some land to raise cash, according to the letter of intent filed with the state Department of Economic and Community Development.

He also would be required to disclose the ownership of the resort, and probably some details of its balance sheet.

In exchange, the grant would require Confalone to create one job per $30,000 in grant funds — in this case, a minimum of seven full-time jobs — paying above the county per-capita income, Kittredge said.

The county’s median income is $27,373 a year.

In exchange for these modest givebacks, Confalone could get $200,000 — and the resort could get running again.

Sounded like a good deal to everyone.

Everyone but Confalone.

The public entities made the pitch and even swung the bat, submitting a letter of intent to apply for the grant on Confalone’s behalf in February.

The March 6 deadline came and went. No grant application was made.

Confalone decided “it was not worth his effort,” according to a Piscataquis County economic development official who took part in the talks.

And the resort will sit idle another season.

No one knows if the application would have won. It’s a highly competitive process.

No one knows if Confalone — whose phone numbers in New Hampshire and Florida rang and rang dozens of times last week without even an answering machine for me to leave a message — has any intent to turn the bullwheel at the bottom of a chairlift that could take skiers to their delight above Maine’s own Lake Tahoe.

What we do know is this: Patience wears thin, and the public has probably gone about as far as it should to help a private businessman — or, at least this private businessman — profit.

“The resort does represent a pretty important economic engine for Greenville and the Moosehead region,” Kittredge told me. “It used to be a big driver of economic activity here, with lots of external benefits.

“Being a big draw, we’d like to work with the current owners, if possible. I do know there are not a lot of options for grant funding for privately owned infrastructure.”

About Confalone, Kittredge is effusively diplomatic, calling the failed grant bid “the start of a continuing dialogue.

“He’s a businessman who’s been willing to work with us and to sit down and talk with us, and I think it’s a matter of finding the right opportunity to get him involved.”

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