Mont Ste. Marie, a quiet and relaxed ski resort located north of the nation’s capital, is seeing a resurgence of popularity as a growing number of affluent professionals and entrepreneurs from Ottawa are hitting its slopes with their young families.
Construction is under way on a new subdivision, or village, of luxury ski-in, ski-out chalets. Linebox Studio architect Andrew Reeves has been drawing up seriously cool plans for his family and three more clients. As well, exclusive custom chalets are being built by Roberto Campagna, owner of Roca Homes, together with O’Keefe Fiorenza Design Group. They’re building a family ski chalet for well-known Ottawa entrepreneur Harley Finkelstein and his wife, Lindsay Taub.
To date, 18 of the 24 available lots at MSM’s Village Tornade have been sold. They’re located along the double-black-diamond Tornade run on Vanier mountain. The first chalets will be completed this ski season, with many more popping up by spring and summer. Cumulatively, the new vacation homes are expected to be worth north of $10 million.
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It’s about a 70-minute drive to the ski resort from downtown Ottawa. Still, the obvious question remains: Why choose Mont Ste. Marie when, if you’re willing to drive an extra hour, there’s a world-class ski resort at Mont Tremblant?
For many, MSM is a rejection of everything that Tremblant represents, from its long lineups and crowded runs to its pricey lift passes and materialistic stigma.
“Every time I go there, I feel I’ve just been ripped off and taken advantage of,” said Reeves during an interview at his firm’s Ottawa office in the ByWard Market. “Everywhere you go, it’s $40 to park and Prada stores. As soon as you have all that, I think you’ve lost me and I think you’ve lost most of the people who go to Mont Ste. Marie.”
Moreover, people want to be part of something that’s new and developing, said Reeves, who also has an interest in designing a boutique hotel.
“It’s the character of the place and the people at the hill that attracted us as a family. As an architect, it’s the Swiss designs that inspired me. They’re at the heart of all the chalets that we are designing.”
In recent years, MSM has become a four-season destination with its increased activity in the summer months. Along with its golf course, it has 35 kilometres of hiking and mountain biking trails, new tennis courts, plus access to a beach and swimming. Also surrounding the ski resort are huge swaths of land owned by Ottawa developer Jeff Westeinde.
Campagna came to discover MSM after being invited up by friends to ski during the Family Day weekend several years ago.
“It’s a hidden gem,” he said during an interview at his office in Little Italy.
What grabbed Campagna’s attention were the number of people he recognized from Ottawa and the number of people in the same parenting stage of life.
The general feeling is, even if you don’t know exactly where your kid is, somebody you know does. The resort has a community vibe, says Campagna, a married father of three children under the age of 11.
“I think the key is that it’s so safe and secure there,” he said. “We can let our kids roam around.”
MSM also offers a great ski option for the region, he added.
But good luck finding a place to hang one’s toque for the night, much less the season. The rental market is tight and many of the decades-old Swiss-style ski chalets look tired and dated. There are about 40 newer ski-in condos at MSM, but Campagna wanted a separate place of his own.
The design-builder approached Bob Sudermann, owner of the ski resort since 2002, about buying land from him. The pair had an après-ski discussion in the main lodge pub on a Sunday afternoon. That meeting resulted in Sudermann and Campagna carving first tracks, so to speak, on a whole new era of development at Mont Ste. Marie.
“People are finally realizing what I realized back in 2002: This is really an amazing mountain with tons to offer people,” Sudermann said.
“I’m just glad that people are starting to catch on.
“The more heads in beds, the better it is for the mountain. It means more tickets, more poutine and more ski lessons.”
Improvements are also being made to the ski hill. MSM is getting a major upgrade that will increase its snow-making abilities and result in longer ski seasons. The $800,000 project, to be completed next year, is being funded through government grants and a $425,000 investment from Sudermann.
As well, MSM is adding more natural “off-piste” runs to its two mountains. There are currently 21 runs, two chair lifts and one surface lift.
MSM continues to boast a strong ski racing club. It saw its world-class Dustin Cook Run open in 2017 and has begun construction on a new start lodge led by local entrepreneur Chris Klotz.
The resort gets about 120,000 visits each winter, while the summer scene has seen a “huge jump,” going from “next to nothing” in 2012 to an estimated 30,000 visits these days, said Sudermann.
Campagna believes the desire to own a ski chalet should be based less on its resale value and more on its purpose: giving owners a place to spend quality time with their families before that short window of time closes.
“I think there are easier ways to make money than to invest in a ski chalet,” he acknowledged. “Everyone has asked themselves: ‘In 10 years, should I want to sell it, will I lose money?’ It’s not a losing proposition, but provided the hill continues to do what it’s supposed to do and becomes more of a desired destination, why wouldn’t your asset appreciate? But, that being said, nobody is in it to make a quick buck.”
In its peak
MSM welcomed its first skiers to its slopes in 1968, but, interestingly enough, it was developed by Swiss armaments company Oerlikon. It was required to create jobs in Canada in order to do business with the Canadian government.
Mont Ste. Marie hits its peak in the late ’70s and early ’80s, when it opened a hotel and conference centre and employed as many as 250 people.
By 1997, Oerlikon had fulfilled its mandate to invest in Canada and sold MSM to Intrawest, which was more concerned about building up its other resort, Mont Tremblant. The MSM hotel has been vacant for so long now that only a wrecking ball could end its misery.
In 2002, Sudermann purchased Mont Ste. Marie with his brother, Peter. He bought his brother out six years ago, but the Sudermanns continue to own Camp Fortune ski resort in Gatineau Park.
The brothers – who learned to ski as boys on the banks of Winnipeg’s Red River – sold their stake in Mt. Norquay ski resort in Banff National Park last February.