Proposal would provide COVID funds to ski areas

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MONTPELIER — A draft economic stimulus bill proposed by the Agency of Commerce and Community Development would provide federal aid dollars to the state's ski areas to help them comply with yet-to-be-announced COVID-19 restrictions in the upcoming season.

The money is part of a proposed $73 million package that also includes funds for businesses shut out of the last round of CARES Act funding and a proposed direct economic stimulus package. It's part of a larger $133 million economic development proposal eyeing sole proprietor-owned firms and businesses that didn't requirements for grant funding in earlier spending bills, as well as a direct stimulus proposal.

The proposal, considered by the House Committee on Commerce and Economic Development on Wednesday, would provide funds to "Vermont ski areas to make necessary COVID-19 related improvements at ski areas to allow them to welcome skiers safely back to their businesses."

Asked by state Rep. Jim Carroll, D-Bennington, why the ski industry is singled out, Agency of Commerce and Community Development Deputy Secretary Ted Brady said the industry will need help in dealing with restrictions that will limit lodging capacity and mandate social distancing. Furthermore, the size of most ski resort businesses in the state meant they were shut out of previous rounds of CARES Act business aid, he said.

WINTER SURVIVAL

"When we look at winter coming forward, we know we have to put restrictions on ski areas that we haven't published yet," Brady told the committee. "We're anticipating having to tell them they're going to be capacity-restricted on their lodges and capacity-restricted or travel-restricted on their hotels."

The industry brings 4 million skiers here a year, Brady said.

"They cannot survive unless we give them some resources to do things differently, for instance getting winter tents with heaters established for day lodge operations, to put in place new ticket and new line systems so you can maintain social distancing," Brady said.

Brady said the Vermont Ski Areas Association — also known as Ski Vermont — has been working with the state on a restart plan.

"They're very much acknowledging they're not going to operate the way they need to unless they make some significant changes," Brady said. "Some ski areas might be able to do that without assistance. I'm not confident that most will not be able to. "

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The alternative, Brady said, is risking the loss of winter visitors to the state, and market share losses for the state ski industry, a significant driver of employment and tax revenue. On top of that, there's concern that Vermont's regional skiing competition, in New York, New Hampshire and Maine, may have more relaxed travel policies in place, putting Vermont at a competitive disadvantage.

"If we don't help the ski areas we're going to lose market share," Brady said. "And once we lose market share it's going to he hard to recapture." Molly Mahar, president of Ski Vermont, said its members have cobbled together a restart plan now being reviewed by member areas' general managers and presidents. Once that step is completed, the plan will be submitted to the Agency of Commerce and Community Development for approval.

"While customers spend most of their time at ski areas outdoors, they spend time indoors as well — and Ski Vermont expects that there will be limitations on indoor capacity, Mahar said. "What the aid money would look to do is help ski areas make improvements or changes to outdoor space to make it easier to spend more time outside."

But there are factors out of the ski industry's control — most notably, which skiers can travel here without quarantining first, and whether the lodging capacity can be safely raised.

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"It would be naive to think [travel restrictions are] going away before winter. It definitely will have a bearing on who will be able to travel here," Mahar said. "For a number of our large markets if winter were tomorrow they would not be able to freely travel here."

RIGHT PRIORITY?

Carroll, during the hearing and in a later interview said the funding should be focused on the hospitality industry, which provides the state with significant tax revenue. That industry — particularly hotels, which remain capped at 50 percent of capacity and barred from accepting guests from harder-hit areas unless they have quarantined for 14 days —took a devastating hit in revenue and employment losses. He also said many of the state's ski areas are owned by large out-of-state corporations with deeper pockets, s and better positioned to ride out a bad year.

Carroll acknowledged there's a chicken-and-egg argument to be made about whether hotels and inns provide ski area customers or whether ski areas provide hotels with guests. But the hit absorbed by hotels and inns makes aid to those businesses paramount, he said.

"What concerns me is the fundamental source of our tax revenues comes from hospitality ... I think we're putting the cart before the horse," Carroll said. "Motels, hotels and restaurants are our lifeblood."

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Of Southern Vermont's ski areas, two are owned by larger corporations: Mount Snow in Dover (Vail Resorts Inc.) and Stratton Mountain Resort in Stratton (Aspen Skiing Company). Bromley Mountain Ski Resort in Peru is one of three areas operated by Fairbank Group LLC, and Magic Mountain in Londonderry is independently owned.

At Magic Mountain, president Geoff Hatheway said no specifics have been provided for the upcoming season. But there's an expectation, which Magic has already communicated to customers, that there may be capacity restrictions ahead, Hatheway said. That could include the number of skiers allowed to ride a lift at once, or the number of skiers allowed on the mountain at once.

Hatheway said Magic is developing an online reservation and ticket system so it can comply with capacity limits if needed. But between that expense, and preparing outdoor spaces where food and beverages can be served, the area is facing the likelihood of needing to spend money while reducing its daily customer capacity in order to meet health and safety guidelines.

While some areas backed by larger companies could sit out part or all of the year, Magic doesn't have that luxury, Hatheway said. And he's concerned about hotels and inns in the Londonderry area that house his guests.

"Sitting out a year would pretty much put us out of business," he said. "So additional funding would be helpful to keep an independent business like us going."

Stratton Mountain's president, Bill Nupp, said the resort is "planning for current capacity limits to remain in place, evolving cross-state travel restrictions, and to be ready to adapt to changing circumstances. "The potential state grant would help offset the cost of creating our new outdoor dining options, as we expect that indoor spaces will be operating with those limits in place," Nupp said. We continue to work closely with state officials and the Vermont Ski Areas Association in developing plans that address every area of our operation."

Mount Snow's parent company, Vail Resorts, on Thursday said it will reduce ridership on lifts and a use a reservation system that gives priority to season pass holders.

Bromley declined comment for this story, saying it preferred to wait until specific regulations and aid program details are finalized.

Greg Sukiennik covers Vermont government and politics for New England Newspapers. Reach him at gsukiennik@reformer.com.


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