A long-closed ski resort in Kananaskis Country could have lifts spinning and a fire burning in a new lodge within a few seasons, its owner says.
For decades, Fortress Mountain had been a go-to for Calgary skiers who sought nearby, not-too-difficult slopes. But in 2007, the resort's lease was revoked after struggling for years with finances, safety issues and closures.
Its current owners, a group of investors, have slowly increased activity on the hill with cat skiing and movie productions.
Thomas Heath, majority owner and managing director, says he wants to see a busy hill and is aiming to have lifts running by Christmas 2020.
"So the stars are all lining up and the demand is sure there," Heath said. "We just need one or two percentage points of people that go to B.C. to stay back and we're laughing."
Margic carpet, tube park
The resort upgraded water and sewage services in the past year and completed an environmental impact assessment and master plan, which includes new high-speed lifts and a 36,000-square-foot day lodge.
The company also has plans to install a magic carpet for beginners and a tube park. The lifts would have capacity for 2,500 skiers.
The new Alberta Investor Tax Credit is making it more financially feasible to pay for the needed upgrades, Heath said.
Environmental 'balancing act'
A lot has changed in recent years, Heath said, and since first opening in 1968.
"Environmentally, there's a lot more to consider. We're in a very sensitive area, the population has expanded about 10 times since back then," Health said.
"So it's a tricky balancing act between allowing access to this magical, raw place we all know as Fortress now and taking care of the critters, the birds, the bees and the bushes and everything else."
Past owners said environmental concerns stymied the resort's ability to draw skiers. At one point, owners had requested more on-hill accommodation, but further development in Kananaskis Country was not supported.
The bulk of Kananaskis Country, as of 1978, has been regulated by Alberta Parks as either a park, ecological reserve or recreation area. Industry and tourism interests are balanced with the mandate to keep the ecosystem healthy, the province says online.
In 2004, the resort closed due to falling revenue. A new company, Banff Rail Co., bought it and reopened for a short time in 2006 but the province ordered it to stop selling passes until an unsafe bridge was fixed. The province revoked the company's lease in 2007.
Other companies have tried to resurrect the hill since then. Although it hasn't reopened to skiers, winter enthusiasts can partake in cat skiing.
That activity owes its success to the film industry, which loves the mountain for film sets, from Inception and Brokeback Mountain to the Revenant and new release Cold Pursuit. One of blockbusters helped fund the bridge and road repairs needed to launch cat skiing.
A Disney film just wrapped up shooting, Heath said, and another Hollywood big budget movie is scheduled for later this season.
Part of the delay in opening, he said, is because the resort is on leased Crown land, not in a provincial park, so he says the regulatory framework is not as clear-cut as it would be further into the Rockies.
With files from the Calgary Eyeopener.