Northern Maine’s largest ski area is closing in on a $5.4 million improvement project goal thanks to new state funding and a quarter million in donations so far this year.
The nonprofit BigRock Mountain in Mars Hill will welcome a new quadruple chairlift next year, beef up its snowmaking ability and even add fall tourism with those upgrades.
The improvements will allow BigRock to handle more skiers on the 1,748-foot mountain. Staff aim to see a 30 percent jump in business, from an average of nearly 21,000 skiers per year to around 27,000. Quadrupling its snowmaking ability will let the ski area open earlier in the season and operate longer. All that means more people and tourism money flowing into Aroostook County.
“BigRock is an economic engine for the area,” said Aaron Damon, assistant general manager of the ski area. “This is all going to make the ski area sustainable for the long term.”
BigRock netted $150,000 in American Rescue Act Plan funds from Aroostook County and a $380,000 forgivable loan earlier this year to help with the project. Business and private donations since January have totaled $250,000, Damon said.
The forgivable loan was from Thrive Maine, a program administered by the Finance Authority of Maine to help organizations experiencing negative effects from the COVID-19 pandemic.
BigRock launched its capital campaign for the new chairlift in December 2021, setting a $3 million goal. But throughout the pandemic, inflation spiked materials and labor, raising the price of the lift by another $1.15 million, Damon said. The Thrive loan will go toward those costs.
Skiing brings Maine about $1 billion a year, according to BigRock. And as outdoor recreation trends rise, staff wanted to capture more skiers and bring them north. And to make the season longer, there has to be consistent snow.
The mountain received a $2.5 million Economic Development Administration tourism grant last August that will help with the lift and address roughly $850,000 in snowmaking and infrastructure improvements, part of the $5.4 million overall upgrade.
To ward off further price hikes, BigRock signed a contract in March with Doppelmayr USA, the lift manufacturer, which locked in the price of the lift, Damon said.
Damon expects installation to start next April, and the lift should be fully operational by fall 2024. That will help BigRock attain another tourism goal: offering its once popular fall foliage rides on the mountain.
The four-seater lift will be 3,495 feet long and will get riders to the top of the mountain in 8 minutes.
The ski area plans to hire 11 more staff members to oversee the new lift and snowmaking equipment.
“I feel that what truly sets us apart is that we have staff who have been here, some for more than 30 years, and are experienced in making snow,” he said.
There’s more to the science of creating snow than one might expect, he said. The air has to have a certain humidity level, and sometimes there’s only a short window when conditions are ideal. With faster snow guns they’ll be able to keep up with the weather.
Since they’ll be making more snow, they’ll have to have access to more water, Damon said. Crews have started working on a new pump house that will draw water from nearby Rocky Brook.
Damon is enthused about the possibility of a longer skiing season. People come from not just the local area, but from all over Maine and other states, he said. The improvements will give skiers of all ages more reason to come north, and more chances to create memorable experiences.
“It’s really something special when you see a grandfather, his son and his grandson on the ski trails at the same time,” he said. “This will be something for us to give to new generations of skiers.”