When the Sea to Sky Gondola was vandalized for the second time in just over a year on Sept. 14, the impacts reached far beyond the business itself.
Since its opening in 2014, local groups and organizations reaped knock-on benefits of the gondola’s operation, and to lose those once again has been an additional gut punch to groups already grappling with the realities of COVID-19.
For Mountain Skills Academy (MSA) owner and chief guide Eric Dumerac, the gondola closure puts him behind the eight ball. The bulk of MSA’s business is in operating the Via Ferrata hiking and climbing experience in Squamish at the Sea to Sky Gondola as well as on Whistler Mountain.
While MSA was unable to resume operating in Whistler during COVID, the business operated under pandemic guidelines in Squamish until the cut, leading roughly 100 trips this summer.
“They did everything they could to facilitate our return to operations up there,” he said. “90% of my business was up the gondola this year and then that tap got shut off.
“For my business, I feel like a nail and the hammer has been hitting it down constantly … It’s a huge loss and this is just one of those things that’s just so demoralizing.”
While the Via Ferrata is not exclusively what MSA offers, Dumerac said that any courses or programming offered until he can operate the Via Ferrata in Squamish and/or Whistler will just be the business treading water.
“We are in complete survival mode,” he said. “There are things we can do ourselves, like avalanche courses, to keep us afloat in the meantime, but this wage subsidy isn’t enough to live on.
“Subsistence is what it is until better times.”
Speaking before the gondola owners and RCMP revealed a $250,000 reward for information leading to an arrest on Sept. 25, Dumerac said he was displeased with the lack of outrage surrounding this duplicate incident.
“This is the second time and this is really far-reaching,” he said. “There’s a lot of anger because this is a town that people move to and want to be in for its natural beauty.”
At the Squamish Chamber of Chamber, meanwhile, executive director Louise Walker said the September incident was a tough blow to take for several businesses already reeling from the pandemic double whammy of higher costs and fewer customers.
“It’s a very strange position to be in a second time. Naturally, we were pretty devastated the first time and certainly devastated a second time,” she said.
COVID has changed the Chamber’s response between the two incidents, as it held a job fair with Tourism Squamish to make the most natural match to be made between employees and businesses facing an ongoing labour shortage in 2019 that does not exist now.
“It was really amazing to see all the Squamish businesses come forward with job offers. Some people were creating positions,” she said. “We ended up with more job positions than we had people.”
A gondola spokesperson would not say how many employees were laid off after the Sept. 14 cut.
“Due to COVID-19, we were already operating at reduced staffing levels. We have managed to retain our core team of approximately 55 people. They will now be focused on our rebuild, keeping our Basecamp operations open daily, and all the necessary steps to reopening,” the spokesperson said via email. “We did have to lay off some of our seasonal staff earlier than expected, though many local businesses stepped up to offer them employment opportunities.”
While Walker said the Chamber was glad to see the gondola reopen in February, as it’s one of Squamish’s “signature experiences,” the pandemic outbreak soon after left businesses reeling worse than either gondola closure. The Chamber, she said, welcomes the reward offer.
“If it works and we see success with that, that will be a great thing,” she said.
As the Chamber looks to help local businesses navigate through the challenges, Walker said that the local organization is working with the BC Chamber of Commerce to lobby government for help.
“We have recommended a bold new plan that does not simply return BC to the uncompetitive business conditions that existed before COVID-19, but rather encourages entrepreneurship and investment. This strategy will not only undo the damage inflicted by the pandemic, but will also create a more competitive, resilient, and prosperous future for all British Columbians,” Walker wrote in a follow-up email.
As well, with BC Buy Local Week coming from Nov. 30 to Dec. 6, she encouraged residents to shop local, with resources at squamishchamber.com including information on its gift card program, a business directory and special offers.
For Dumerac’s part, he said he’s concerned about how successful a gondola return will be unless those responsible for both incidents have been arrested.
“This is giving Squamish a bad name and it’s scary. I’ve had some parents say to me, ‘I don’t know if I’m going to ride the gondola in the future,’” he said. “Until they catch this person, what’s the next step for them?
Tourism Squamish did not respond to multiple requests for comment for this story. The Downtown Squamish BIA also did not provide comment by press deadline.