Northern Cape Breton's budding winter tourism dreams face a housing crunch
Businesses in Ingonish, N.S., hope to benefit from winter tourism, but can't find places for staff to live
With a gondola, snow-making machines and a newly renovated lodge, Ski Cape Smokey is ready for a busy winter.
The Ingonish, N.S., ski hill is expected to bring lots of visitors to an area of Cape Breton that is known mainly as a summer destination.
But local business owners that hope to benefit from the influx have a big question — how can they get people to work in a winter wonderland if they don't have a place to live?
"People are flocking to the island more than ever, but I feel like we're kind of at a standstill because until we can serve the people that are coming to this island, then we can't expand," said Sarabeth Drover, co-owner of Salty Rose's and the Periwinkle Café.
Drover and her cousin/business partner Caitlyn Purcell have had to purchase trailers and build washroom facilities to house staff in the summer.
The business is one of many in the area, including the resort hotel Keltic Lodge, that will be testing the waters this winter when it comes to opening up shop in the snowy months.
Purcell and Drover will likely be doing the majority of the winter work on their own. They don't know how the season is going to go and the trailers they bought aren't appropriate for housing people in the winter.
In nearby Wreck Cove, Brent Partland, the co-owner of the Wreck Cove General Store, said finding and keeping employees is a roadblock for many businesses in the area.
"Staffing is our No. 1 problem," said Partland. "If you find the staff you still have to have a place to put them and there just are no spots, so housing and staff accommodations are our biggest hurdle toward expansion and growth, let alone sustainability."
The Wreck Cove General Store is home to a gas bar and is open year round. Partland is still pleased with the rise in visitors in the winter months he's seen over the past several years. Normally he and his wife run the store during winter, but this year they are planning to hire staff.
Housing for workers in tourism-heavy communities has been a problem along the Cabot Trail, including in Chéticamp.
And it's one Victoria County municipal councillor Larry Dauphinee said isn't a new issue for the area. Ingonish is nestled between mountains and Highlands National Park, making land a finite resource. However, some newer issues have cropped up over the past few years.
"We've had a number of houses available in the area but Airbnbs have kind of taken over, which has really put a crunch on the housing market for anyone trying to move in," said Dauphinee.
The hot housing market isn't helping either.
"A lot of people are small or young families just starting out so really can't afford some of these prices that are being asked."
According to Dauphinee, the municipality is identifying and surveying land it owns in the area. The hope is to have third-parties develop it into housing.
Ski Cape Smokey has been undergoing major renovations since late 2019. The ski hill was once run by volunteers, but with millions of dollars in investments it's now looking to employ around 100 people this winter and 500 in the years to come.
Martin Kejval, project manager at Ski Cape Smokey, said there will be some staff accommodations built at the ski hill, but there needs to be longer-term solutions for workers too.
"Eventually, let's say they want to start a family, they have the option to stay in the area."
Sydney-Victoria MP Jaime Battiste said the Liberal Atlantic caucus has been discussing the issue and he will be raising it when Parliament is back in session Nov. 22.
"These are good challenges to have, that kind of once-in-a-generation growth in an area," he said.