After fighting an uphill battle with the weather for most of the season, a pair of Outaouais ski resorts got a ray of financial sunshine late last week.
The Quebec government announced it was committing more than $1.5 million in funding for equipment and facility upgrades at Camp Fortune and Mont Ste. Marie as part of a $15-million package to boost tourism at the province’s ski resorts.
The two Outaouais-area resorts will use the bulk of the grant money to buy state-of-the-art snow-making technology in the hope of being able to open their runs to skiing and snowboarding fanatics earlier in the winter.
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“By increasing the snowmaking capacity, we can get runs open quicker and earlier in the season with better skiing conditions,” said Bob Sudermann, who owns Mont Ste. Marie and shares ownership of Camp Fortune with his brother Peter.
Gatineau Park ski resort Camp Fortune will receive more than $1.3 million from Tourism Quebec, the ministry announced. The money will go toward buying $1 million worth of new snow-making equipment, expanding the resort’s ski lodge and eventually modernizing its aerial park and adding twin ziplines connecting the ski centre’s three hills.
“Snow-making is crucial,” said Erin Boucher, Camp Fortune’s marketing director. “It’s something that we’re always reinvesting in every year.”
Mont Ste. Marie is receiving $250,000 from Tourism Quebec and an additional $75,000 from Tourism Outaouais in grants announced Saturday. The resort about an hour north of Ottawa is also awaiting word on an expected $100,000 grant from another government agency.
Sudermann, who is chipping in more than $300,000 of his own money to help cover the $750,000 cost of installing the high-tech snow-making jets and towers at his ski hills, said Mont Ste. Marie’s current equipment is no longer able to keep up with rising demand for man-made snow.
In the past three years, the resort has added two runs, raising its total to 21, and doubled the minimum width of its signature giant slalom course from 20 to 40 metres to meet International Ski Federation standards.
That’s required a lot more white stuff to cover the extra slope space.
“We’ve expanded our ski terrain without expanding our snow-making capacity,” Sudermann said. “As a result, it’s taken longer to open our runs than it has in the past.”
‘February’s been a tough month’
Mont Ste. Marie now welcomes about 120,000 skiers through its gates in an average season. Sudermann expects that number to jump to at least 150,000 with the new equipment, which he said will cut the amount of time needed to produce good-quality powder from five or six days down to three or four.
The new technology should also allow the resort to open several weeks earlier and could help boost revenues by up to 40 per cent, he said.
“It’s a substantial return on investment,” Sudermann said.
He said Saturday’s announcement was a bit of welcome news in what’s been a tough year for his resort thanks to the whims of Mother Nature.
The beginning of winter was “amazing” for skiing and the hills drew good crowds, he said, but “ever since then, it’s kind of been a rollercoaster ride. One weekend it’s raining, the next weekend it’s cold. Now, here we are at the end of February with spring-like conditions. It’s been a challenging season, and all the more reason for better snow-making (equipment).”
Over at Camp Fortune, Boucher said visitor numbers are down about eight per cent so far compared with last season, when the ski centre drew its best-ever total of 150,000 skiers. So far in 2017-18, she said, the resort has attracted almost 120,000 visitors.
“February’s been a tough month,” she said. “It seemed like every week we were getting some sort of weather, be it freezing rain or a meltdown.”
But she said Camp Fortune’s numbers are still above average for this point in the season, adding a bitter cold snap around Christmas was actually a good thing for the slopes.
“The cold weather allowed us to get terrain open quickly,” she said. “Although cold keeps casual skiers away, people who are dedicated skiers would much rather be skiing in cold weather on great snow than in warmer weather with rain. As long as there’s good snow, people will ski.”
At Sommet Edelweiss in Wakefield, operations director Jean-Sebastien Saia agreed the industry has had its “ups and downs” this season.
Visitor totals at the resort are about on par with last season, said Saia, who’s hoping for good weather next month to attract big crowds during the March and Easter breaks.
Sudermann is also crossing his fingers for a strong finish to the winter snow sports campaign.
“This year we have Easter at the end of March, which we didn’t last year,” he noted. “That could be a real boost at the end of March to have an Easter holiday weekend.
“In this business,” he added with a chuckle, “I have to be hopeful.”