A three-year effort to privatize Marble Mountain Ski Resort has ended without a deal, leaving people and businesses in western Newfoundland wondering about what lies ahead for the government-owned resort.
The provincial government cancelled its request for proposals for Marble Mountain on Sunday, telling CBC News in an emailed statement that it received only three submissions since it announced the RFP in June 2018.
That RFP had asked for private sector ideas on buying or leasing part or all of the money-losing resort in Steady Brook. But COVID-19, which hit a year and a half into the process, changed the course of some of the bids the province received, according to the premier. Now the whole process will most likely begin again from scratch.
"I think it's the right and responsible thing to do, to make sure we issue a fair RFP process, and so that's what the province is looking at doing next," Premier Andrew Furey said Tuesday. He didn't say when a new RFP would be issued.
One of the three unsuccessful proposals belonged to Joe Dicks, who owns the Marble Inn, directly across the Trans-Canada Highway from the ski hill. Dicks said he applied to take over the government-owned accommodations at the hill, Marble Villa, along with a chunk of its surrounding land, but never made it past the first stage of the RFP process.
He said he supports the ending of the RFP — "it's an appropriate step," he said, pointing to the time elapsed — but hopes this isn't the end of trying to privatize the place.
"I just can't imagine a western Newfoundland without Marble. I think Marble has great potential to create economic development, economic development that we so gravely need right now," he told CBC News.
"I just think the stewardship of Marble has to change, and the opportunity we haven't tried yet is privatization."
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Privatization got another recent push from the final report from the premier's economic recovery team, released in May. "This is not the type of business that government should operate," stated the report, which also said keeping it running "requires expertise the government does not have."
The resort is subsidized by the province to the tune of about $1 million annually.
Its 2020 season was cut short by COVID-19, causing a $1.5 million loss, according to government correspondence acquired through an access-to-information request. The hill's 2021 season was even shorter, with the hill open for one month due to a combination of pandemic restrictions and poor snowpack.
Amid those challenges come infrastructure woes. "The facilities at Marble Mountain are over 25 years old, and require significant maintenance and replacement," a government email reads.
Dicks sees opportunity amid the challenges.
"It has great value. Now, that value has to be realized by an optimized Marble operation; it's not realized by standing still, eroding buildings and ski hill chairs that aren't running. It needs to operate," he said.
Dicks pointed to Cape Smokey, a ski hill in Nova Scotia sold to a group of Czech businessmen in 2019, who plan to introduce a gondola ride and other year-round features to the resort.
A longtime skier and former member of the Marble Mountain Development Corporation board of directors agrees that banking on a ski season to survive doesn't make sense.
"The model is pretty clear," said Jerry George, who lives in Steady Brook. "It's been proven time and time again across Canada: the private sector has to develop the base area with things like hotels, restaurants, condos and other amenities, with the ski hill being part of what attracts people to the area."
George likens running the resort to a movie theatre, where "there's no business case without operating the canteen." He said a year-round model of operations is a necessity.
As it stands, Marble is mostly quiet outside the ski season. While Marble Villa is open and a zipline business operates year-round, the chalet itself is closed and the hill and base unused except by locals snowmobiling, biking or hiking on their own.
Both George and Dicks hold out hope that a buyer is out there.
"I think there is within Newfoundland," said George.
"I don't think you're going to find an outside operator that's going to come in. But I think that there are individuals within the province who've, you know, expressed an interest in the past and they would hope would still have an interest in making this a viable asset on the west coast."