After 35 years of service, the creaky chairlift at the Camden Snow Bowl is facing its last winter as the primary ride up Ragged Mountain.

In the wings to replace it is a used triple chair, a 1984 Riblet, that will be purchased this fall from Shawnee Peak in Bridgton and delivered to Camden, where it will be overhauled and installed for use in winter 2011.

Buyers of the new lift are banking that this news will be music to the ears of skiers who have waited in long lines at the bottom of the hill as the chair crept along its routine. The existing chairlift and a T-bar are the two lifts that skiers have been using to reach the higher slopes of the Camden Snow Bowl for several generations. The chairlift, acquired thanks to a donation from Arthur Watson, was moved from Bald Mountain in Dedham to the snow bowl in 1975. The T-bar, affectionately known as the Big T, was installed new in 1966, with help of a federal Department of the Interior grant, according to “The Camden Snow Bowl,” a historical documentary, 1936-1996, by Jack Williams.

Today, both lifts have aged, and there have been occasions when the lifts break down, sometimes taking turns malfunctioning. Or, someone derails the Big T, loading up the chairlift line. And there have been times when the chairlift suddenly halts, leaving skiers stranded in the cold seats suspended in air, while mechanics hover over equipment. There is also the issue of the lift’s diminishing usage, thanks to thieves who stole one of its seats last spring.

All those factors, coupled with a vision to replace the mountain’s two T-bars with chairlifts to accommodate more boarders, have led to the purchase of the new lift, which will cost $745,000 to buy and install. Still, that is half of what it would cost to purchase a brand new lift, said Robert Gordon, president of the Ragged Mountain Recreation Area Foundation, the nonprofit that has, since 1991, been raising money to support capital improvements at the mountain.

The foundation is purchasing the $105,000 lift this fall, and funding $276,000 to refurbish it. Then, the foundation will donate the lift, with its 175 carriers, to the snow bowl. After that, the project will require another $369,000 to install it on the mountain, money that is currently being raised as part of a much larger $4.5 million Mountain of Possibilities Capital Campaign that will fund a major redevelopment of the four-season recreation destination.

While the Camden Snow Bowl is owned and operated by the town of Camden, the foundation raises money for the mountain and the Ragged Mountain redevelopment project represents a delicate partnership between public ownership and a nonprofit, which focuses on strategic planning. A municipal committee consisting of foundation members, Camden citizens and town employees is the framework for the public-private collaboration.

While it is the proposed new lodge design that has earned much scrutiny over the past year, the new lift represents a concrete step forward to reconfiguring the mountain. The lift will cut a different path up the hill, starting near the proposed new lodge, and extending to the top of the mountain where the Big T ends. As it is installed, the Big T will be removed, and trails altered. Additionally, the existing chairlift will be shortened, and used to haul novice skiers to the top of beginner slopes. The reconfiguration marks the end of T-bars at the snow bowl.

“This is a strategic fit,” said Gordon, who is leading the campaign committee. Besides the $4.5 million private fundraising, the plan calls for another $2 million in public bonding, contingent on approval by Camden voters. The committee also consists of Ann Montgomery, Erin Flanagan, Mort Strom, Rick Knowlton, George Mueller, Cate Cronin, Jeff Kuller, Patrick Jones, Caroline Morong, Wendy Weiler and Ollie Wilder.

The capital campaign kicked off last January and its goals include building a new lodge, expanding trails, increasing snowmaking reliability, enhancing Hosmer Pond access and otherwise improving the recreation area for the sake of year-round activities. The improvements, proponents are hoping, will increase the number of visitors not just to the snow bowl and the recreation area, but to the Camden area, and generate more business.

According to supporters, Ragged Mountain cannot sustain itself as it is now. They cite its aging infrastructure, including an insufficient sewer system, as fiscal drags. The path to a more economically vibrant facility is the redevelopment investment. An overhauled Ragged Mountain Recreational Area will add value to a region whose economy is strongly rooted in outdoor tourism, they maintain.

The project is not without its skeptics and critics, who question not only the scope but the financial investment. At a summer community meeting held at the Camden Opera House, residents questioned whether the new lodge was too extravagant, and if the Camden Snow Bowl was well suited to be a venue for more concerts, weddings and celebrations, given noise concerns.

Jeff Kuller, on the other hand, has said that the proposed lodge is by necessity just the size to accommodate skiers, a sports rental shop, a race center, a bathroom and kitchen, along with staff offices. Kuller is Camden’s director of parks and recreation, and he said that by comparison, the new lodge is designed at approximately the same size as the existing lodge design, which was never fully built according to architectural plans. That original design called for three A-frames connected by a hall, with a second floor, he said, but it never got completed. And, he said, the existing lodge is well past its prime.

“It’s tired,” he told business owners, town employees and citizens who gathered Sept. 8 for an economic development discussion at High Mountain Hall in Camden. “It’s old and none of the systems are living up to code. It’s not living up to its potential.”

The new lodge, he said, should support 200 to 250 people.

“That size is a missing key in the community, that intermediate size is great for weddings and reunions,” he said.

But David Dickey, whose family has been involved with the Camden Snow Bowl for generations (it was his grandfather, Harold Corthell, who bought the Nash Farm and donated it to the Camden Outing Club for use as a recreation area), hopes project organizers can scale down the design.

“There needs to be an alternative plan to what they have,” he said recently. Besides his concern for the size of the lodge, he is skeptical about its long-term financial sustainability.

Gordon also maintains that the mountain’s fiscal balance is essential.

“Part of the overall campaign is to establish sustainability,” he said. The goal is also to increase the endowment after the campaign concludes, to build for annual projects.

Project costs

While campaign committee members are in the community soliciting donations, Kuller is likewise tapping grants that target hiking and biking, waterfront access, and winter sports. Last year, Camden received a $35,000 recreation trails grant from the state of Maine, as well as grants from the Seth Sprague Education and Charitable Foundation and the Davis Foundation.

The redevelopment currently carries a price tag of $6.5 million. Costs, reflecting 2008 projections, are as follows:

• Professional (legal, architectural, engineering, fundraising): $573,050

• Site improvements (road, parking, utilities, landscaping): $475,000

• Summer facility improvements (trails, waterfront, bike pump track): $65,000

• Winter facility improvements (chairlifts, trail construction, snowmaking, lighting, engineering): $2.38 million

• New lodge (construction, furnishings): $2.9 million

Proponents are sticking to those numbers, despite a suggestion by Camden architect Stephen Smith, who asked the committee recently if an $8 million price tag might be more realistic. The committee, led by Rick Knowlton, responded that the project would adhere to the 2008 budget of $6.5 million. Otherwise, the only factor to shift is the time line, with projections now to solicit voter approval extended from this year to possibly in 2011, or June 2012.

Meanwhile and despite a Great Recession, the fundraising continues, ranging from cocktail parties and quiet appeals to community events, such as dances and yard sales.

“We’re almost a third of the way there,” said Gordon, earlier this month. “We’re working to windward now. In a better economy, we would be sailing downwind.”

He reported in mid-September that the campaign has raised $1.7 million and was closing in on $2 million.

“There are a lot of asks out there,” he said.

The campaign is relying on several sectors, from those who can write Major Pacesetter gifts — $500,000 or greater — or major gifts, $100,000 to $499,999. Leadership gifts, $10 to $99,999, have also been solicited, as have business gifts.

“There has been a lot of interest, and a lot of excitement around the project,” said Joe Ryan, who serves on the campaign’s outreach committee.

Gordon and a few others also recently met with representatives for Sens. Olympia Snowe and Susan Collins, who indicated enthusiastic interest in the project, he said.

While the project is integrated, meaning one improvement depends on the other improvements, there are no defined phases; in fact, proponents are anticipating that work will be under way at the Camden Snow Bowl in 2012 and 2013.

“It all could be done in a year,” said Gordon.

With the new lift heading to the coast, however, the project is already under way.

“The price was right,” he said, and finding one in Maine “versus Canada or Montana saved the project major dollars.”

As for the old T-bars, Kuller asks: “Do you want one?”