Happy Trails: Time is slipping away for Big Squaw (Feb. 16, 2008)

Whatever your feelings on Plum Creek’s plan for Moosehead Lake (yuck), perhaps it’s time to seek a middle-ground answer — one that expands jobs and quality recreation without degrading the backdrop that supports it.

I’m here to posit that Big Squaw Mountain Resort may be just the (lift) ticket.

Some 105 miles from Augusta on a series of spaghetti-bowl state roads, ski season at Big Squaw isn’t “every day from Halloween to Patriot’s Day,” it’s “Saturdays, Sundays, holidays and vacations” — probably 30 days a year, at most.

The slogan isn’t “Best in the East.” It’s “Call Before You Come.”

Half the mountain — the upper half — never opens.

Owner Jim Confalone has long-rumored plans to turn around a ski hill that, frankly, isn’t well enough developed, close enough to major markets or open enough days to fetch a working profit or even stay properly maintained.

What the resort has is panoramic, Tahoe-like vistas of Moosehead and surrounding mountains, 33 miles of ski slopes, an existing bed base and the logical geography for a four-season resort.

What Confalone has is 6,500 acres on Big Moose Mountain and along nearby Moosehead shores, including 925 acres surrounding the resort already zoned for development.

He also seems to possess questionable business sense, and a certain power to make himself invisible that stakeholders find irritating.

Regular readers of this space know how much we love the rustic pleasures of the family-owned ski area: homemade food in the lodge, slower lifts, narrow trails, affordability, lack of attitude.

As with Saddleback’s plan, Big Squaw has the room to grow while still retaining those qualities. In the process, it could help draw “crowds” (once defined by a Big Squaw ski patroller as 30 skiers a day) to the region, and with less of a footprint than Plum Creek’s proposed 975 house lots and two brand-new resorts.

Confalone’s near-term plan is said to be for 200 condominiums, upgrades to the existing hotel and base lodge, and lift improvements on the upper mountain. The long-term plan is a little more ambitious — the obligatory 18-hole golf course, two new hotels, some single-family homes, even a train station.

Sounds like a lot of development for Maine’s crown jewel, except when you consider two things.

One: As a symptom of Maine’s privately owned wilderness, we’re going to have to accept that Moosehead Lake is going to see some development, sooner or later.

Two: Maine’s largest environmental organizations — Natural Resources Council of Maine and Maine Audubon — have endorsed Big Squaw expansion as a viable Plum Creek alternative.

But while modernizing Big Squaw seems like a no-brainer, plans for its resurgence have proceeded fitfully — and may ultimately be doomed to fail.

Confalone, who purchased the resort in a near-bankrupt state in the mid-1990s, has never submitted detailed expansion plans to the Land Use Regulation Commission.

He doesn’t return calls.

The town manager in Greenville says he’s never met him.

The planning firm working with Confalone declined comment.

“We think it has the potential to be a truly fabulous ski resort,” Yarmouth planner Terrence DeWan told me this week. He referred other questions to Confalone, who has seven listed business and home phone numbers stretching from Miami to Maine.

With all the delay has come decay — a condition that turned tragic in the winter of 2004 when two Big Squaw skiers were injured in a chairlift accident.

In what is probably one of every skier’s Top Five nightmares, a chair carrying skiers slid backward down a haul rope, crashed into the chair behind it and broke from the lift, sending two skiers crashing 15 feet to the ground. They were seriously hurt, but lucky to escape with their lives.

An official of Maine’s Office of Licensing and Registration cited “some fraying” in the haul rope.

The incident would be a harbinger of Confalone’s derelict management.

He made most of his cash buying and selling homes in south Florida, and in a string of car wash businesses.

He lost a lot of it purchasing a Florida seaplane company called Chalk’s International Airlines, a Miami charter.

Chalk’s had been losing money for years but Confalone, a former pilot, wanted it. So he bought it out of bankruptcy for $925,000 and renamed it Chalk’s Ocean Airways.

The airline was never profitable, but he had talked to associates about using it to leverage Big Squaw, bringing tourists in on flights to and from Bangor.

That never happened.

Six days before Christmas 2005, a Chalk’s seaplane bound for Bimini crashed after taking off from Watson Island, Fla., killing all 20 people aboard.

Investigators found “fatigue cracks” on both wings of the doomed, 58-year-old Grumman Mallard.

Chalk’s four other planes were grounded by the feds, and victims’ families filed two lawsuits accusing Confalone’s business of improper maintenance.

Given all that’s happened — and not happened — with Confalone’s businesses, it’s understandable if officials around Greenville are lacking in blind faith — and why they may be tilted a little toward Plum Creek.

“The community is disappointed that he hasn’t spent more time here, and that he hasn’t concentrated on rebuilding the resort,” Bob Hamer, executive director of the Moosehead Region Chamber of Commerce, told The Miami Herald. “At one time, it was the largest employer in our region. Now, it has a handful of employees, at best.”

Piscataquis County commissioners have discussed discontinuing winter maintenance on the resort access road because of uncertainty over the resort’s status.

And while Greenville Town Manager John Simko said Confalone’s plan would be a tremendous benefit to the region, seeing it come to fruition is, for him, something else entirely.

“It’s something that we have all hoped for and wanted in that location for decades,” Simko told the Herald.

“We’ve all believed in the potential. But unfortunately, we are a bit jaded here because we have suffered literally decades of not seeing that fulfilled, both through Confalone and previous owners.”

For the sake of the Moosehead region and for the reasonable development of a great small ski area with incomparable assets, here’s hoping Big Squaw gets off the mat — and its owner develops a viable roadmap to fulfill his vision — soon.

The more this waits, the more Plum Creek looks like the only reasonable alternative.

Confalone didn’t return numerous calls seeking comment.

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