Skiers want Marble Mountain open this winter. The province says it's working on it

The provincial government says it intends to open the ski resort, but can't say what operations will look like at this point as it works through public health restrictions.

Minister says staff working on potential opening plans

The province says it has to figure out how to apply public health restrictions to things like ski lifts, rentals, and food and beverage sales. (Lindsay Bird/CBC)

It's not a firm yes, but the Newfoundland and Labrador government says it's looking at ways to open Marble Mountain for the upcoming ski season, even under the province's current public health restrictions.

Having the provincially owned resort in Steady Brook open for the 2021 ski season is "our intention," said Tourism, Culture, Arts and Recreation Minister Bernard Davis on Friday, although he said he couldn't comment if a potential opening may include shortened hours of operation.

While 2020 is anything but typical, late September is usually when Marble Mountain begins publicly announcing details of the upcoming season, such as early bird season's pass rates, but its social media channels have been quiet since late spring.

That silence has skiers in western Newfoundland anxious for updates.

"It's definitely making people nervous," said Peter Smith of Corner Brook, who has skied the hill for decades.

"I do understand it's a challenging time. There are challenges. But you know, I think there are ways to do it, to look at it, to get that facility open."

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Peter Smith says west coast skiers are getting nervous as the fall deepens, without any details of an upcoming season at Marble Mountain. (Submitted by Peter Smith)

The hill's chief operating officer, Tony Abbott, was set to retire this spring, but the Department of Tourism, Culture, Arts and Recreation said in a statement Abbott is "assisting in our potential opening scenarios."

Skiing isn't the issue, says minister

Davis said there are a lot of logistics to consider.

"It's not the skiing down the hill that's the issue, because it's a very vast, vast operation out there," he told CBC Radio's Newfoundland Morning.

The hang-ups at the moment involve all the various aspects of its operation that involve closer human contact, Davis said.

Ifwe're able to open restaurants, malls, schools, et cetera, Ithink there's an avenue certainly to explore to open up Marble Mountain.- Peter Smith

"There's a number of restrictions due to social distancing and the safety of all patrons. Whether that be ski rentals, how that looks, how that feels, can we do that?" Davis said.

"Food and beverage services, how does that look? Can we provide it? And if we can provide it, what does that look like?"

Restaurants have been open to in-person dining since Alert Level 3 began in early June, operating at 50 per cent capacity. Bars resumed service, with restrictions, at Level 2 a few weeks later.

"If we're able to open restaurants, malls, schools, et cetera, I think there's an avenue certainly to explore to open up Marble Mountain," said Smith.

Smith said he is willing to accommodate restrictions in order to make that happen.

"When they open, is it going to be ideal? No. Let's not kid ourselves — nothing is ideal," he said.

"If I gotta wait in a lift line for 10 more extra minutes because they're limiting the amount of people on the chair, then I'm willing to do it."

Importance of outdoors

Indoor environments pose greater risks for COVID-19 transmission, and Canadian public health officials have already begun stressing the importance of increasing time outdoors this coming winter.

Smith said he and his family avoided spending non-essential time indoors this summer, and skiing plays a key part in continuing that once the snow hits.

"I really do think, in the age of COVID, more than any time, it's really a necessity for these folks to get it open, to provide that physical and mental health," he said.

Smith also says he worries what a closure would mean for the local economy.

"Often people, when they leave Marble, they might  go out for a beer or a plate of nachos somewhere, and so forth," he said.

"It's the direct, indirect spinoff of other areas, businesses in the community."

Davis said Marble is on the government's mind as staycationing stretches well past the summer months.

"Marble is a key piece in any winter tourism activity," he said. 

"As we do every year, we are going to try our best to ensure all our winter assets are utilized."

Marble Mountain has been in poor financial shape for years, but a process to sell it has dragged on with few updates since mid-2018. (Geoff Bartlett/CBC)

No timeline on potential sale

More than two years ago, in June 2018, the province issued a request for proposals to potentially sell the hill or its assets.

Marble Mountain has been financially troubled for years, with the province providing subsidies of nearly $1 million a year to offset its losses, as ski visits continue to decline as seasons go by.

There has been little publicly disclosed about the RFP process since, although the province stated in early 2019 it had received multiple offers.

Davis said while the pandemic slowed the process down, it has since restarted, but he could not give a timeline on when anything will be announced.

"We're in that process again. Hopefully we'll have some, at least the clewing up of that, will happen in weeks, months, or a period of time, anyway," said Davis.

In the meantime, the mountain continues to be run by a board of directors comprising civil servants from the St. John's area, in contrast with its bylaws, which require local residents be part of the decision-making.

Davis, who lives in St. John's, said the hill's management will stay as status quo while the RFP process continues, a system he said has drawn little complaints around the Avalon Peninsula.

"I hear very little challenges with respect to Marble from my side of the province. Many of the problems that I hear, about negative, come from the west coast in general. From my standpoint we're very positive on the hill," he said.

Marble Mountain's opening day last season was Jan 10, 2020.

Read more from CBC Newfoundland and Labrador

With files from Newfoundland Morning