Uphill challenge for downhill resort
CLARENVILLE, N.L. — Pierre Mirault, the new manager of the White Hills ski resort near Clarenville, is hoping to have four runs ready for the resort’s opening weekend this Saturday, Jan. 12.
On Monday afternoon, Jan. 7, Mirault was hoping for a cold snap to allow him to fire up the snowmaking guns.
A heavy rainfall — 14 mm — on Sunday, Jan. 6, followed by a mild spell on Monday, whittled away at some of the snow base on the hill.
Colder temperatures on Tuesday made for better conditions for snowmaking.
"We basically fought Mother Nature." — Gregory Pittman, chairman, Alpine Development Alliance Corp.
A weather system moving in Wednesday night was expected to bring a snow and freezing rain mix, but that shouldn’t hinder the plans to have the slopes ready for skiing on Saturday.
Weather has been a nemesis for the resort, especially in the past few years.
Last year mild and rainy conditions saw the slopes closed for most of January and part of February.
And that was a direct hit on the cash register at the resort.
During the 2018 season White Hills recorded the lowest revenue in a decade, according to Alpine Development Alliance Corp. (ADAC) financial statements.
The ski resort brought in just $423,065 in revenue in 2018 (compared to 2017’s $668,303.)
Gregory Pittman, chair of ADAC, says despite the financial woes, the 2018 season was a success.
“From the board’s point of view, last year was a tremendous success, even though it wasn’t good financially. The fact that we opened and had eight good weeks was almost a miracle,” he told the Packet, saying that things finally got rolling in February after a disappointing January.
Exploring year-round ideas
With winter weather being more unpredictable, the White Hills Ski resort has looked at other means to attract people, and revenue.
In 2013 the resort hosted its first Eat the Hill food festival, and last year introduced a beer-and-poutine event and a craft beer event.
These events brought in $30,354 in revenue in the 2018 season, helping combat a loss of $13,776 in the season’s day-to-day food and drink operation.
It is obvious, however, from the financial statements the resort can’t depend on winter alone to increase revenue or turn a profit.
The Alpine Development Alliance Corp. (ADAC) has been contemplating other ideas to bring people to the hill beyond the winter season.
In recent years the hill was the setting for the Random Sound Music Festival, organized by Brent McNamara of St. Johns.
That festival began in 2013, but low ticket sales caused organizers to move the venue to St. John’s in 2014.
The festival returned to White Hills in 2015, but again low ticket sales put an end to the event.
A feasibility study by British Columbia-based company Gravity Logic explored the potential for mountain biking at the resort. That report was completed earlier this year and is currently under review by the ADAC.
Clarenville town council voted to cover 10 per cent ($1,630) of the cost of the study in May of 2017.
However, summer operations at White Hills may be a way off yet.
“The challenge is it needs to be sustainable… is there a business model for those summer time activities that can compensate for the cost of running it in the summer? To date we haven’t found that. I’m sure it is there, and the board spent an inordinate amount of time looking for that magic item,” explained Tilley.
“The best bang we can get right now is to treat it as a 12-week resort and do the very, very best focusing at that.”
Pittman shared a similar sentiment.
“We’re not convinced it’s going to be feasible to put in a downhill biking park,” he said. “There may be a cross country biking park that can incorporate some of the cross-country trails in there. We’re still looking at that.”
“It wasn’t necessarily a lack of snow that killed us, we make snow; it was the rain. What happened was we made snow on three different occasions and we had major rainstorm take it away … We basically fought Mother Nature.”
The second worst year for the resort was 2009, which saw only $379,581 in revenue.
Neither of those years, when stacked against the high expense of running the resort, turned a profit.
In fact, the financial statements for the ADAC, obtained by The Packet through an Access to Information request, show the resort has only turned a profit in two of the past 10 years; 2011 and 2017.
The resort was purchased by the Town of Clarenville in 2000, when the previous owners were planning to dismantle the equipment and sell it off.
The town’s annual budget includes money for the resort: $25,000 annually for operations, as well as a repayable annual loan.
Paul Tilley is chair of the town’s finance committee.
Tilley noted a lot of the costs are “front heavy”, meaning that a majority of expenses, such as snow making, occur regardless of whether sufficient revenue comes in during the season to cover those costs.
“You cannot manage the weather, and last year proved that in spades,” he told The Packet.
“It’s challenging. It is not a money maker… It’s never going to make a pile of money. But the real point, like the Eastlink Events Centre, is that the resort is a unique asset to the community that is very valuable in terms of attracting and retaining people,” he said.
The ADAC, in a presentation to the Clarenville Area Chamber of Commerce in November, 2018, claimed the resort had an annual $1.5-2 million economic spin-off benefit on Clarenville and surrounding area.
Pittman noted the resort hires about 40 local staff and maintenance and construction jobs often go to local businesses, providing them a source of income during the winter, and that winter tourists spend money in Clarenville, bolstering the local economy.
“It’s not a profit-making venture… it is one of the unique features that the town of Clarenville has that only one other community in the province can say they have.”
The only other ski resort on the island is at Marble Mountain, near Corner Brook.
“I really think the town is extremely lucky to have the resort,” Pittman said.
Part of the challenge, he added, is striking the balance between repaying debts while also purchasing and maintaining equipment; both items are crucial.
Changes this season
For the time being, there are a number of changes to the hill this season.
Guests can now purchase snow cards, lift tickets, and season passes at the online store.
The season pass also comes with a new ‘perks program’, giving pass holders special discounts at select sponsors, including Clarenville Inn, Marble Mountain and East Coast Eye Care.
"There’s obvious potential with this place" — White Hills manager Pierre Mirualt
Pierre Mirualt is on deck this season as the new resort manager, replacing former resort manager Chris Shephard, who finished up in mid-December is now working with Destination St. John’s.
Mirault, who has over 40-years of experience in the industry and whose resume includes management positions at Calabogie Peaks Resort, Mount Pakenham Ski Centre, Antoine Mountain, and Wilderness Tours Rafting Resort, began work in early January.
“I’m excited about the challenge here to make a difference,” he told The Packet. “There’s always areas to improve upon.
“I’m coming here with a lot of ideas, but are they relevant to the ski hill and the surrounding area and the demographic of what we’re dealing with? Time will tell.
“There’s obvious potential with this place … lets focus on what is working, and what we can do moving forward.”
Mirault says getting more folks on the slopes is critical.
He hopes to schedule more events and plans to invite more school groups to the hill this season to meet that goal.
This weekend the main event is the seventh annual Eat the Hill event. Foodies will gather to sample a menu prepared by well-known chefs from around the province.
And, if Mother Nature co-operates, folks should also be able to hit the slopes.