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Snow shortage on Mount Washington hurting regional economy

Kevin Lawrence owns the Ski Surf & Kayak Shop in downtown Courtenay.  - Scott Stanfield
Kevin Lawrence owns the Ski Surf & Kayak Shop in downtown Courtenay.
— image credit: Scott Stanfield

Mount Washington Alpine Resort is not the only local business suffering from mild winter conditions.

A lack of snow — and skiers — has also been hurting the hotel, hospitality and retail sectors over the past month.

A 50-year precipitation low since early-November has delayed the start of Mount Washington's winter by a month so far. The mountain had hoped to open the slopes Dec. 6.

Since that time, occupancy has been down at the Best Western Plus Westerly Hotel.

"We miss the skiers," says Linda Bridgman, sales and convention services manager. "It is a significant impact to the hotel and to the economy of the Valley. We are praying for snow.

"For the entire Comox Valley, it's essential to the winter business. It impacts restaurants, it impacts everything."

Compared to last December, the Holiday Inn Express was down three per cent in occupancy and about $10,000 in sales.

"It (no skiing) unfortunately has had a negative impact on us," general manager Grant Smith said Thursday. "As far as December is concerned, I was expecting it to have a greater impact. It always opens soft in December for the first couple of weeks."

The pinch comes in early-January while schools are closed.

"My occupancy projection for the next seven days is around 28 per cent, excluding walk-ins, where last year it was around 55 per cent occupancy," Smith said. "That's a significant amount of rooms. This is the ski week where we'd have a mix of hockey and ski business.

"We still had that hockey business stay with us right after Christmas. I think that's why we weren't down significantly in December, but I am seeing it now a lot more."

Though not where it needs to be from a business standpoint, the Ski Surf & Kayak Shop is not entirely dependent on mountain conditions thanks to its diversity of merchandise.

"We've found this year with the warmer climate we've had, people are buying more paddle-specific products," owner Kevin Lawrence said. "That's helping recover some of our shortfall from the snowsport side of our business. There's certainly a lot fewer people coming in looking at anything ski- or board-related."

So far this season, activity at Mount Washington has been limited to the Tube Park.

At times, the mountain suffers a slow start to the winter. The 2004/05 season was a writeoff, whereas 2010 was a record-setting year. By late-December, the base had exceeded five metres, surpassing what the mountain sometimes receives in an entire season.

At peak operating times, the mountain employs more than 700 people.

During this year's Christmas holidays, the resort lost thousands of patrons each day.

"When you take that with the ticket revenue, it definitely does hit us," resort spokesperson Brent Curtain said. "But we can make up ground if snow conditions are good for the rest of the season. Technically speaking, we're still early on."

The mountain has secured a deal to provide free skiing and snowboarding at Whistler Blackcomb until Jan. 31 for season passholders. The deal is available to gold, alpine, midweek and student passholders. If Mount Washington opens in January, the Whistler Blackcomb deal will end plus a three-day grace period.

For updates, visit www.mountwashington.ca or check the resort's Facebook page.

reporter@comoxvalleyrecord.com

 

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