Camden Select Board met in a special session Monday, April 8, to address safety concerns raised by architect Stephen Smith regarding Camden Snow Bowl's Riblet Tramway Company triple chairlift.

The Riblet chairlift — which is one of 45 aerial lifts in the state — was purchased from Bridgton ski resort Shawnee Peak by the Ragged Mountain Recreation Foundation for $110,000, according to foundation documents.

Engineers Ross Stevens and George Sawyer told the Camden Select Board there was little cause for concern so long as the triple chairlift was maintained according to statutes enforced by Maine Board of Elevator and Tramway safety.

"Relocating used chairlifts is done all the time by a great many ski areas," Stevens said. "Preventative maintenance is the key."

Stevens, who did the preliminary designs to re-engineer the Riblet triple chairlift for Ragged Mountain, said he began relocating chairlifts in the 1970s.

"To my knowledge they're all still up there and operating," Stevens said.

Ragged Mountain Recreation Foundation Co-Chairman Rick Knowlton said re-engineering the chairlift will incorporate the use of "hundreds of thousands of dollars" of new parts.

According to Sawyer, Camden Snow Bowl's current chairlift was initially installed on Bald Mountain 1967, and relocated to Ragged Mountain in the early 1970s.

Sawyer and Stevens said the testing requirements and maintenance for chairlifts are identical following the lift's first year of operation. Non-destructive testing of critical components takes place every seven years, the engineers said, while re-licensing occurs annually.

"I have to believe that Shawnee Peak was abiding by all the requirements," Stevens said, rating the Riblet triple chairlift's quality at "eight to ten."

Knowlton said the decision to purchase a used chairlift was based on "Yankee-style prudency."

"There are lots of ways to spend money at the Snow Bowl," Knowlton said. "We have worked very hard to contain the project down to the important elements."

Knowlton said he recently contacted a representative from Doppelmayr — one of two aerial lift companies currently in business — and received an estimate of $1.2 million for a new chairlift "in the parking lot," with an additional $400,000 in installation costs. Stevens added that such a lift would not be a "comparable fit" due to its lack of a full-enclosure motor room for operation and maintenance.

Installation costs for the former Shawnee Peak triple chairlift are estimated to be $880,000, Knowlton said.

"Anytime when you can purchase a good quality, used lift for a hundred thousand dollars, that's close by, jump on it," Stevens told the Camden Select Board, adding the triple chairlift may have an expected lifetime of 20 years or more.

Riblet insert clip recall

Camden attorney Paul Gibbons spoke on behalf of Smith, who did not attend the meeting. Gibbons told the select board Smith based his concerns on found information via an Internet search engine regarding a recall of insert grips from the now-defunct Riblet Tramway Company.

According to Sawyer and Stevens, Riblet insert grips connect individual chairs to the internal core of a metal haul rope rather than by clamping onto the rope's exterior.

"It's sort of like buying a used car, a very old car that they don't make parts for anymore," Gibbons said. "It will work okay. But you cannot predict when it might fail."

Gibbons said told the select board that since the Riblet Tramway Company is no longer in business, "you can't sue the manufacturer" in the event of a future design defect.

Sawyer and Stevens said they were aware of the insert grip recall, but said, to the best of their knowledge, Shawnee Peak and other mountains had completely replaced the defective clips.

"My guess is that that is a redesigned, upgraded clip," Sawyer said, adding upgraded clips are available from "a few different companies."

Stevens said there are more than 300 Riblet chairlifts still in use throughout the country, and any failures of the products may have been caused by improper or insufficient maintenance.

In response to a question from Selectman Leonard Lookner as to why the Riblet clip — which the engineers said was quieter, smoother, and more economical than other chairlift grips — has not been copied by other manufacturers, the engineers said they were uncertain.

"I kind of believe — and this is my belief, my opinion…they found that [an external grip] suited their needs," Sawyer said. "And they just stuck with it as much as anything."

Stevens speculated "there must have been some substantial dimensional differences or material differences" that precluded such a changeover.

Camden Town Manager Patricia Finnigan emphasized that safety was at the forefront of the decision-making process for Ragged Mountain's redevelopment.

"I think if anyone leaves here tonight thinking that we would ever do anything that had any equipment, any function in this town, that the Board went into thinking it was unsafe, that would never happen," Finnigan said. "The town is nothing if it is not about public safety, and the Snow Bowl is nothing if we cannot guarantee that people [will] go out there and they'll have a wonderful, wonderful time — but they've got to go home safe."

"Those parts, that equipment…they are only as good as the people who work [them]," Finnigan added.

Ragged Mountain Recreation Foundation Co-Chairman Bob Gordon told the Camden Select Board $3.8 million has been raised for the redevelopment project, leaving $700,000 to be raised before a $2 million bond issue can be placed on the town's November ballot.

Chairman Martin Cates asked the select board to reaffirm their previous mandate "to continue this [project] until we get to where we all think we'd like to be." The board unanimously responded in the affirmative.

"So it looks like we're behind you folks," Cates told representatives of the foundation. "Get out there and get this done."

Camden Herald reporter Bane Okholm can be reached at 236-8511 ext. 304 or by email at bokholm@courierpublicationsllc.com.