• by Karen Cummings

Shawnee Peak's new owner brings new look to Bridgton ski area

BRIDGTON, Maine— Sunday River's Les Otten buys one ski area... SKI Ltd. has taken an option out on another...


With all the headlines about the number of ski area acquisitions in the Northeast, the news that Shawnee Peak has a new owner and a new look has almost been lost in the shuffle.


But that doesn't bother Chet Homer, the Tom's of Maine executive who recently purchased the Bridgton, Maine, ski area which boasts of being the largest night skiing facility in New England.


"I've been on the lookout for that special business opportunity," Homer told The Mountain Ear in a late afternoon interview in the ski area's newly painted and recarpeted base lodge. "I live in Maine and am a regular skier with my family, so when I became aware of this opportunity, I took a hard look at it and spent a lot of time with the current management."


After doing his research, Homer decided that there is a real place in the ski industry for a "niche" ski area like Shawnee Peak and he took the plunge, closing on the deal in mid-September, just 90 days before the area was scheduled to open for the season.


That the place has been a beehive of activity since that time, and will be until the lifts and slopes open for business is obvious.


"The place just had a worn down look," said Homer. "Lots of attention has been paid to the facilities and to the staff. We're working on getting a lot of projects done to the revitalize it."


Homer has also listened to suggestions from his experienced management team and additional projects to be completed before the mountain's scheduled Dec. 16 opening include upgrading the snowmaking system by purchasing additional snow guns and doubling the outside seating area to make it more user friendly, in addition to the cosmetic improvements to the facility.


Homer has also committed 100 percent to the mountain's new afternoon grooming program, a costly proposition which involves regrooming 16 trails, representing 90 percent of the lighted terrain, each afternoon.


More improvements are planned for next season including cutting a few more trails from the summit and doubling the snowmaking capacity. "We're concentrating on what we can get done before our scheduled Dec. 16th opening," said Homer.


Still Shawnee As part of its "new look" that is coming with its new owner, Shawnee Peak has dropped the Indian from its logo, but, according to Homer, it will not be dropping the name that came with its last owners, a Pennsylvania development company which also owned Shawnee Mountain in Shawnee-On-Delaware, Penn.


"We thought about changing it back to Pleasant Mountain, the name of the area most of its history," said Homer, "but they had spent five years establishing the name and it would take quite a marketing effort to change it back—an effort that would be better put to other things." He noted that to older skiers, the area is still Pleasant Mountain, but to the up-and-coming generation, like his own children, aged 7 and 10, it's only Shawnee Peak.

The mountain's new logo, introduced this past weekend at the Boston Ski Show, has a graphically rendered mountain peak with a single ski trail running down it and includes the depiction of a sun and a quarter moon. "This shows more of what we offer here," said Homer of the logo, "the skiing, both night and day."


Financial background Though Homer admits that he's a complete "rookie" when it comes to running a ski area and that he is still in a learning mode, he's bringing to the enterprise extensive experience in the financial end of small business.


At Tom's of Maine, where he will continue to work, Homer serves as the director of finance and operations and he has been picked to serve on the boards of several additional Maine businesses because of his expertise.


"There's a lot of good here already and I'm working to cultivate it," said Homer.


This means that all of the senior staff has been retained. "They have a lot of good ideas which they were never able to bring to fruition," he noted. "A local hands-on owner will allow the mountain to take care of some of the things that may have been ignored in the past."


"We had absentee ownership for more than 10 years," added Amy Brown, marketing director for Shawnee Peak. "While they did listen to our suggestions about improvements at the mountain, it wasn't the same as having someone to see first-hand what the real needs are."


Brown also noted that although the parent company declared bankruptcy in recent years, both of the ski areas it owned were profitable during that time. "One of the reasons that bank wanted to take them over was that they were valuable assets," she said. "The financial trouble of the parent company was totally unrelated to the ski areas they owned."


And while Homer is expecting a great ski season with lots of snow, he recognizes that there are no guarantees in the ski industry. He says he is both psychologically and financially prepared for a less than stellar year.


"I'm very optimistic about this year's success, but prepared for a bad year," said Homer with a laugh. "Even though we're not quite at the mercy of the weather as we used to be, I know unforeseen things can happen."


Family ski area Other than steadily reinvesting in the ski area and making Shawnee a "nice successful ski area where people know where their kids are and have an enjoyable time," Homer is not envisioning himself as the next Les Otten. "I'm not a developer," he said. "I have no aspiration to own five ski areas. I don't plan to build condos."


He does, however, plan to enhance the family atmosphere at Shawnee, which he considers a part of his ski area's charm and attraction.


"I think when people come here this season, they'll find a revitalized spirit," he said, adding, "There's room for all different ski areas—we have a very strong following because we're close to our market [Portland], we offer night skiing, and we're small, which some people prefer."


"People are pleased and relieved that the mountain is moving forward. There's a core group of people who only want to ski here—they grew up skiing here and they're coming back with their families," said Brown, adding that season pass sales for the year were up.


Meanwhile, Homer and his family are also looking forward to the upcoming ski season.


"Everyone has a dream to own their own business," said Homer, "but to have it be in the recreational business, one that you love, makes it even more fun and appealing." •

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